How Do You Tell a Narcissist That They Didn’t Win?

Research reveals which presidents' speeches betray grandiose narcissism.

Posted Nov 06, 2020

From the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., at 2.30 am on November 4, President Trump made an extraordinary speech that included these phrases: 

"We were getting ready to win this election. Frankly, we did win this election… We want all voting to stop. We don’t want them to find any ballots at 4 o’clock in the morning and add them to the list, okay? It’s a very sad moment. To me, this is a very sad moment. And we will win this. As far as I’m concerned, we already have won it."

Photo by Dr Raj Persaud
Brighton Beach, UK
Source: Photo by Dr Raj Persaud

Which aspect of the above speech reveals most about the mental state of the speaker?

Have a go at this psychological test question before reading the rest of the post.

Psychologists who have analysed in detail the speech patterns of U.S. presidents, and what their choice of words reveal about their personality, have recently published a study, the results of which suggest that it is possible such a speech might reveal a hidden mental agenda behind the words. This psychology behind the allegations of vote-rigging is being many people at the moment, as they focused on whether or not there was any truth behind this astonishing accusation.

The study entitled, "The Best Words: Linguistic Indicators of Grandiose Narcissism in Politics," was in fact inspired by another, earlier, speech by the 45th President; at a 2015 campaign event, Donald Trump claimed, “I have the best words.” This boast appears to have inspired the authors of this research, James Underberg, Anton Gollwitzer, Gabriele Oettingen, and Peter Gollwitzer, because it seemed the kind of bragging only a so-called "textbook" narcissist might be associated with.

The study used previous research that involved assessing grandiose narcissism personality scores for each president from George Washington to George W. Bush, based on the judgments of 177 historians. According to this analysis, Theodore Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson scored very high on grandiose self-admiration, while Grover Cleveland and James Monroe scored very low.

The authors investigated a particular form of vanity, "grandiose narcissism," which typically describes the kind of person convinced of their general wonderfulness, but to the extreme extent of becoming aggressive and dominant with attention-seeking acts.

Because narcissists are devoted to acquiring leadership, fame, and wealth, losing power and status will lead them to feel more totally empty, whereas the less self-absorbed can adjust to a relatively more anonymous life after the presidency, and accept more gracefully that it is someone else’s turn to take the top job.

As narcissists display heightened self-importance and entitlement to special treatment, it makes sense for them to believe losing means a contest has been rigged against them, simply because they are not winning. This could explain why they may not feel the need to provide any further evidence of cheating against them. The mere fact of trailing becomes confirmation of an antagonistic conspiracy.

Such egotists pursue rank and standing much more relentlessly than non-narcissists do, so are much likely to overstate their capabilities or fib to get ahead. Narcissists tend to interrupt more, too.

Given all the warning signs, anyone facing an electoral contest with a narcissist could perhaps have anticipated any later voter fraud contentions. Anyone in a race with those so in love with themselves should not only have a contingency plan beforehand but also should arguably be more robust in rebutting post-contest allegations.

Another way narcissism could influence electoral outcomes is that the vain are notorious for suffering from “narcissistic rage.” This is an explosive mix of anger and hostility, arising from threats to the self-absorbed sense of superiority. Narcissists cannot accept losing in any contest, as this is too menacing to their convictions of pre-eminence. As a result, it is natural, indeed inevitable, for narcissists to claim not that they didn’t win—instead, the other side must have stolen the victory through cheating.

Two speeches per president were analysed in the research, published in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology, which meant the average number of words entered into the analysis per president was 10,308 words, including the first inaugural addresses and first State of the Union addresses.

The study, by psychologists based at New York University, and Yale University, finds that more "grandiose" U.S. presidents use words differently than their humbler presidential counterparts—including, in particular, using more “we-talk.”

Grandiosity was most strongly predicted by "we-talk," otherwise known as first-person plural pronouns. Donald Trump has made frequent use of the word "we"; this personal pronoun appears several times in the excerpt from the "election fraud" speech above.

Donald Trump’s speech appeared to be off the cuff and may not have been the product of a team of script-writers. One obvious criticism of the study at hand is that Presidents’ speeches are written, to varying degrees, by speechwriters. However, the authors defended their analysis by pointing out that it is well known that candidates select the speechwriters and edit their work to ensure that it is in their own voice. Also, stable word use patterns in politicians’ speeches—even those written by different speechwriters—have been noted to occur over time. Political speeches have therefore been accepted as valid for personality analysis.

Trump’s speech was perhaps intended to achieve many goals: Maybe it kept the media spotlight on him just when it should have been moving away, towards Joe Biden, the candidate shown to be edging ahead. 

How to Handle the Narcissist

How to tell them they didn’t win, when their injured self-esteem might turn them into a dangerous adversary? A wounded animal is sometimes more deadly than one fit enough to escape. Two classic techniques are both deeply manipulative, and can be referred to as "illusion of victory" and "love bombing."

The "illusion of victory" is achieved by rendering the second prize larger and more sparkly than the winner’s cup. Make those in love with themselves an offer which makes them feel like winners, so they are never abandoned to confront the reality of losing.

Another tactic, "love bombing," requires overwhelming someone with messages and signals of adoration and attraction. You can make a loser feel like a winner by praising the way they fought, and celebrating achievements which will never be forgotten.

For example, perhaps "behind the scenes" offers of a visiting Ambassadorship, or some similar role, where an ex-President could travel the world with their own personal camera crew, in an official Air-Force "One-and-a-Half," could transform the prospect of a crash, into a take-off.

Dr. Peter Bruggen passed away in 2018. While this post was written by Dr. Raj Persaud, Dr. Bruggen's name is retained biographically as a tribute to his contributions overall. 


The Best Words: Linguistic Indicators of Grandiose Narcissism in Politics. James E. Underberg, Anton Gollwitzer, Gabriele Oettingen, and Peter M. Gollwitzer. Journal of Language and Social Psychology Vol 39, Issue 2, 2020 1–11