The Personality of Hillary Clinton
What the science of personality can tell us about the Democratic nominee
Posted Oct 03, 2016
If it wasn’t clear before, last Monday’s Presidential debate made it so: the 2016 Presidential election is not an election of policy; it is an election of personality. Although the first five minutes or so of the debate concerned economic policy, the remainder of the debate largely resembled a public personality interview, with both candidates making their best efforts to demonstrate what makes their own personal qualities the right ones for the job and their opponents’ the wrong ones. Late in the debate Donald Trump even stated “I think my strongest asset by far is my temperament. I have a winning temperament.”
Just a bit over a year ago, before most thought he would end up as the Republican Party presidential nominee, I wrote about Donald Trump’s personality. Looking back, and having seen Mr. Trump’s personality on full display for over a year now, I think it is pretty fair to say that (a) my earlier assessment was pretty accurate and (b) he hasn’t changed his personality one bit. Thus, with the election only about a month away, I now turn to the personality of the Democratic Party’s nominee: Hillary Clinton.
Given that Mrs. Clinton has been a public figure and serving public office for some time, it is somewhat surprising that so little has been written about her personality.1 A presentation in 2008 describes Mrs. Clinton in terms of the Big 5 personality traits and the Myers-Briggs typology. More recently, the USPP website provided a description of Mrs. Clinton’s personality in terms of the Millon Clinical Multiaxial Inventory, a measure of clinical personality problems.
In contrast to those articles, I describe Mrs. Clinton’s personality in terms of her Bright Side (how she typically behaves) and her Dark Side (how she behaves when under stress or when she lets her guard down). Of course, I do not know Mrs. Clinton personally and have not had the opportunity to assess her personality professionally. However, personality is best captured by reputation, or the sum of one’s behavior. As such, I interpret Mrs. Clinton’s personality by considering her behavior over the past several years.2 Where appropriate, I also offer comparisons to Mr. Trump.
Beginning with the Bright Side we can expect Mrs. Clinton to be:
- Low to Moderately Adjusted. Although Mrs. Clinton conveys calmness under pressure, she does appear to be a bit anxious and nervous. She takes criticism personally and is seems genuinely disappointed with herself when she makes a mistake. The downside is that she may hesitate to take action out of nerves or fear of failure. On the other hand, she takes negative feedback and criticism seriously, and is responsive to it.
- Highly Ambitious. Mrs. Clinton is competitive, wants to win, and wants to be in charge. She will be concerned about results and getting things done. On the downside, she may tend to compete with those who are actually on her team and potentially alienate her staff if she does.
- Low to Moderately Sociable. Unlike her Republican counterpart, Mrs. Clinton tends to be less comfortable speaking publicly, and especially extemporaneously. Although she is well-connected, she only has a small network of very close confidants. The disadvantage for Mrs. Clinton is that she appears less charismatic and confident than other politicians, which hurts her perceived leadership ability. Interestingly, charisma and confidence are more associated with gaining leadership positions (i.e., leadership emergence) than leading a winning team (i.e., leadership effectiveness).
- Low on Interpersonal Sensitivity. Mrs. Clinton is seen as distant and impersonal. Indeed, her detractors regularly point this as her major flaw (e.g., that she is a robot). She doesn't shy away from confrontation and seems unsympathetic. The upside is that she tends to take make decisions more on rational than emotional grounds. The downside is that she has difficulty connecting with others.3
- High on Prudence. Mrs. Clinton is detail-oriented and cares about following the rules. This is seen most clearly in her rigorous preparation for public appearances and meetings. She is loyal and dependable to those that she perceives to be on her team (e.g., acceptance of Secretary of State after losing the primary to Obama in 2008). She is likely to be careful and considered in making decisions.4
- Low on Inquisitiveness. Mrs. Clinton is practically focused and does not appear to be particularly creative in terms of developing policies or solving problems. Instead, she tends to prefer tried and true solutions and borrowing policy ideas from others. At the same time, she pours over the details of proposed solutions before bringing them to the forefront. As a result, she is fairly predictable and prone to be perceived by some as boring.
On the Dark Side we can expect Mrs. Clinton to be:
- Low on Excitable. As just noted, Mrs. Clinton tends to be stable and predictable in terms of her mood and emotions. Indeed, she is publicly unreactive to personal attacks and criticisms (though privately criticisms appear to bother her more). Interestingly, this characteristic is perhaps the one that distinguishes Mrs. Clinton most from Mr. Trump. Mr. Trump is far more reactive to personal attacks and unpredictable. In other words, while criticisms bother Mrs. Clinton internally (low Adjustment), she does not let it show publicly. Mr. Trump is precisely the opposite.
- Highly Bold. Although Mrs. Clinton is not as Bold as Mr. Trump, virtually every politician scores high on this characteristic (including Barack Obama). It takes a high degree of self-confidence, feelings of grandiosity, and arrogance to decide to run for President of the United States. As a result, these people are difficult to work with because they feel entitled to special treatment, intimidate others, and overestimate their capabilities (i.e., virtually every President in history has failed to follow through on election promises).
- Highly Cautious. Mrs. Clinton seems slow to take action, which appears to largely stem from fear of making a mistake or facing criticism. Indeed, she appears pressured (from inside and out) to be perfect at all times. The downside is that this will make Mrs. Clinton slow to act and make decisions. On the plus side, she will thoroughly consider each decision she makes.
- Low on Mischievousness. Despite popular conspiracy theories, Mrs. Clinton appears to be low on Mischievousness. She is not particularly charming, nor daring. She does not appear to enjoy risks or thrive on excitement. As a leader she will be controlled and is unlikely to make decisions on an impulse. On the downside, she won’t appear to be very much fun.
- Low on Colorful. Mrs. Clinton is similarly low on Colorful. She is not particularly likely to entertain with jokes and is more likely to come across to others as boring. She is not adept at calling attention to herself. She is more likely to point to her record of public service rather than to her own personal characteristics. Once again, this distinguishes her dramatically from Mr. Trump who is perceived as much more self-promoting and entertaining.
- Highly Diligent. Mrs. Clinton is perfectionistic. She has extremely high standards for herself and is highly organized. She is obsessive about details and takes preparation very seriously. This means Mrs. Clinton will get many things done and do them well. On the downside, she may be overly controlling and difficult to work with as others may not live up to her high standards for performance.
- High on Dutifulness. Mrs. Clinton does not like to go against the grain or appear to be particularly rebellious. Indeed, she seems to care much more about pleasing others and is willing to compromise (or change) her opinion on matters to get others to like (e.g., stance on gay marriage). On the plus side, she will be willing to listen to others and take their advice.
In summary, Mrs. Clinton is highly motivated—even obsessive—about her own success. She is calm and controlled in her outward behavior, though internally she takes criticism to heart. She is not particularly socially skilled (compared to other politicians) and would undoubtedly rather people focus on her service record rather than her on stage performances. While she has many personality strengths that would make her an effective leader, she lacks in charisma and excitement that many look for when choosing leaders. Additionally, her tendency to be rule-abiding combined with her strong desire to achieve means she will tend towards moderate and cautious policies, probably far more moderate than she is promising her constituency.
As I have noted before, the fate of any organization is largely a function of that organization's leadership. As such, the stakes of the upcoming election for the United States are high. Ultimately, it is a person’s personality that gets him or her elected and likewise a person’s personality that indicates how he or she will lead. The remainder of the 2016 election is sure to be quite fascinating as America chooses between Mr. Trump, whose personality is on full display at all times, and Mrs. Clinton, whose personality is more guarded are difficult to discern. The former has a combination of characteristics that are far more entertaining and electable, while the latter has a combination that is considerably more boring, but likely more effective for leading.
1 Excluding those that are clearly ideologically driven.
2 Which is the same method everyone else uses, though I do have the advantage of being a trained personality psychologist with experience assessing lots of personalities.
3 It is likely that some (if not many) Clinton supporters will object to this particular characterization, arguing that it reflects sexism and an unfair double-standard for women in politics. To some degree, they are correct. On average, women tend to score higher on Interpersonal Sensitivity than men (which is one reason why women tend to be more effective leaders than men). When we judge Mrs. Clinton’s level of Interpersonal Sensitivity, we are undoubtedly comparing her to Interpersonal Sensitivity levels of other women. By this comparison, Mrs. Clinton is fairly low, even though she may not be all that low compared to men. Moreover, women are penalized more for low levels of Interpersonal Sensitivity (or likeability) than men. Indeed, Mr. Trump’s level of Interpersonal Sensitivity appears to be much lower than Mrs. Clinton’s, but she seems to be far more hurt (in terms of polling numbers) by it. Despite this, reputation is reputation. Whether it is fair or not, Mrs. Clinton’s Interpersonal Sensitivity is largely viewed by others to be relatively low.
4 Mrs. Clinton’s detractors may object to this characterization pointing to her email scandal, for example, as suggesting a lack of detail-orientation and rule-following. However, such errors in cutting corners are pretty rare for Mrs. Clinton. Further, unlike her Republican counterpart, Mrs. Clinton appears to be genuinely contrite and able to admit she has made mistakes.
I am grateful to Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and Dr. Robert Hogan for their thoughtful suggestions and contributions to this post.