U-M professor explores ‘presidential’ personalities


University of Michigan psychology professor David Winter, Ph.D. discusses how we can understand the psychological makeup of presidents at Grand Rapids Community College. Photo by Mike Nichols

A president of the United States is a complicated person.

He is (so far) a man comprised of his past, present and future, said David Winter, and the answer to who he truly is might be fuzzy unless you look at him from a broader perspective.

A University of Michigan professor of psychology with a Ph.D. from Harvard, Winter was opening speaker Thursday for Grand Rapids Community College’s first of four planned sessions on psychology in GRCC’s Wisner-Bottrall Applied Technology Center.

Winter said there are two main ways people measure the personality of a president: Either assume the present performance will resemble his past performance, or use intuition. Both of these, however, are fallible, he said, as past performance could solely be based on the context of the past rather than the present, and intuition is imperfect.

“The problem is there’s not a past performance like being a president of the United States,” Winter said. “It’s not like being a senator or the head of Bain Capital.”

Instead, a discerning citizen should look at the whole context of the person to understand the man, Winter said, exploring the factors making up President Barack Obama’s personality.

Winter said every personality, even a president’s, is based on a mix of motives, cognitions, social contexts and temperament, with each factor relying on its own source of data.

“All of these contexts continue to live on in (the person),” Winter said. “They are a part of personality and the field on which personality plays itself out.”

He highlighted Obama’s “legendary calmness,” praised by some as wise and criticized by others as apathy. Winter said that restrained manner comes from all aspects of Obama’s personality.

Obama had loving grandparents, which could factor into it genetically, he said, yet the president also had a bad example in his father’s rashness, which could contribute to a subconscious desire to reject a loud demeanor.

“Obama spent his whole life in cultures known for being laid back … Hawaii and Indonesia,” Winter said. “He’s also a black man who wants to succeed in a white world, which means he better appear calm even if he’s not … and if you want to do well in Harvard’s law school, it helps if you are calm.”

One of the most important factors is found in a person’s motives, Winter said, which cannot always be judged in action because “actions adapt to the situations in the service of the motives.”

There are three intersecting dimensions to motivation, he said: achievement, affiliation and power.

Power was the highest motive in a score Winter drew up for Obama’s 2009 inaugural address. Based on counting word imagery in the speech, Obama scored a 33 in power, 17 in achievement and 16 in affiliation.

This is not uncommon for an inaugural address, Winter said, noting that other presidents also scored high in power for inaugural addresses. Overall, 20th and 21st century presidents scored 707 for power, 554 for achievement and 498 for affiliation.

Winter noted there was a steady increase in the power level from George H.W. Bush to Obama. Power presidents are polarizing, being both extremely loved and hated. They tend to be associated with war, assassination and often like their job.

Achievement presidents, who tend to think of the office as a business, Winter said, start well, but get frustrated with political intrigue and end up unsuccessful and hating their job.

“Achievement motives do not lead to good political results. It’s great for running a company, but it really doesn’t get you far in politics,” he said. “Achievement people tend to change based on what works, but then your fans’ belief and trust in you will erode and your adversaries will jump on you and call you a flip-flopper.

“And there’s nothing a president can do against a constituency of an independent base who has an idea about what’s best,” he said.

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has no inaugural address to score, Winter said, but based on speeches made in 2008 and 2011, Romney showed high results in power motivation and achievement motivation.

Depending on which motivation Romney leans toward, it could decide whether or not he is elected and becomes a successful president or eventually gets discouraged.

Winter’s opinion? “I make no predictions.”

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