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Things I've Learned About Personality From Studying Political Leaders at a Distance


  • A version of this article was presented as the Henry A. Murray Award address at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association, Toronto, August 9, 2003. Some of the research reported in this paper was supported with grants from the John and Mary R. Markle Foundation, and the United States Institute of Peace (Grant # 046-92S). In the course of my research career, I have reason to be grateful to many people; here I single out Richard Donley, who first suggested scoring presidential inaugural addresses for motive imagery, and Abigail Stewart, for her unfailing support, advice, and comments.

concerning this article may be addressed to the author at: Department of Psychology, University of Michigan, 525 E. University Ave., Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1109. E-mail:


Abstract Studying the personalities of political leaders requires methods of measuring personality at a distance. One such method is content analysis of speeches, interviews, and other texts. This article reviews the author's research on achievement, affiliation, and power motives of U.S. presidents and other leaders and draws the following conclusions: (1) motivation and personality can be objectively and reliably measured at a distance; (2) personality is complex, consisting of several different elements or kinds of variables (e.g., motives and cognitions as well as traits); (3) personality exists in social contexts, and past social contexts are embodied in personality; (4) political behaviors and outcomes can be predicted from personality, but only in contingent (“if/then”) ways.