Get access

Presidential Personality: Not Just a Nuisance


  • An earlier version of this paper was presented at the annual meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association in Chicago, Illinois, March 31–April 3, 2011. We thank Tim Nordstrom, Kyle Beardsley, and the anonymous reviewers for their comments and suggestions. We also thank Steve Rubenzer and Thomas Faschingbauer for sharing their presidential personality trait data.


Few systematic studies of US uses of force treat the inherent attributes of presidents as the key causal factors; nonetheless, the fact that individual leaders matter is evident to the public, the media, and foreign policymakers in other countries. This study advances the development of First Image explanations of conflict by empirically investigating the relationship between presidential personality and the variation surrounding foreign policy decision making. The importance of this type of variance has been understudied in international relations, and the consistency of leaders' policy decisions has important strategic implications for interstate conflict. Relying on Big Five measures of US presidents' personality traits, we find that leaders who have a high tendency toward Excitement Seeking are more likely to use force to carry out their foreign policy objectives, while those who are more Open to Action exhibit a greater variance around their foreign policy decision making. In sum, the personality traits of individual leaders influence not only the choices they make, but the consistency of their choices, which has important consequences for US foreign policy.