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Study says charisma trumped narcissism for voters in 2016 US presidential election

April 10, 2018

Narcissism is common among U.S. presidents and is often associated with negative outcomes for former presidents such as Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. However, narcissists with charisma can also attract voters, inspiring them with a call to action, a grand vision and their own personal charisma.

A new study by faculty at Florida Atlantic University suggests those positive qualities, as perceived by voters, may have helped push U.S. President Donald Trump to victory in the 2016 presidential race with Hillary Clinton.

"What we find in the 2016 presidential election is charisma appears to counterbalance the negative effects of a narcissistic personality in people's perceptions of a leader and going ahead and voting for that person," said Ethlyn Williams, Ph.D., associate professor of management in FAU's College of Business, who coauthored the study with faculty from California State University San Marcos, Nova Southeastern University and the University of Sydney. The study is published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.

Williams and her co-authors examined results of surveys administered two weeks before and one week after the 2016 election. It was completed by 426 participants who answered questions on leadership and leader evaluations for both Trump and Clinton. Results from the study suggest that narcissism and attributed charisma are both important predictors of voter choice and found that attributed charisma may serve as a balance to narcissism. Thus, followers of a candidate potentially look beyond negative leadership qualities to select those leaders who they perceive to have redeeming positive attributes and values.

While the researchers cautiously suggest that charisma may indeed "trump" narcissism, the results also suggest when voters attribute charisma to a candidate and also believe that they share similar values, this may allow voters to more fully embrace the candidate.

Exhaustive media coverage of candidates for more than two years ahead of the election, as well as skillfully woven narratives from the candidates about their own lives, provides voters with the perception of familiarity with candidates' traits, the study noted. With the power of modern social media, this effect can be amplified.

As they expected, researchers did see that narcissism is negatively related to charisma and negatively related to voting.

"That's what makes it interesting," Williams said. "Narcissism is negatively related to perceptions of charisma in this sample and negatively related to voting for the candidate in this sample. Yet still we see strong positive relationship between charisma of that person and voting for that person. So clearly charisma makes a difference."

While Trump's narcissism and charisma translate as "appearing strong" to his supporters, Williams noted, future research is needed to look into how voters perceive his narcissistic qualities over time in terms of his performance as president.

"That long-term effect, what people feel they're getting from the leader over time, will determine how they judge the leader," Williams said. "So, we're not there yet, but our early research suggests that those people who view Trump as being self-serving will evaluate his performance more negatively. While people who view him as doing good things for the country will view him more positively; and that's human nature."
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About Florida Atlantic University

Florida Atlantic University, established in 1961, officially opened its doors in 1964 as the fifth public university in Florida. Today, the University, with an annual economic impact of $6.3 billion, serves more than 30,000 undergraduate and graduate students at sites throughout its six-county service region in southeast Florida. FAU's world-class teaching and research faculty serves students through 10 colleges: the Dorothy F. Schmidt College of Arts and Letters, the College of Business, the College for Design and Social Inquiry, the College of Education, the College of Engineering and Computer Science, the Graduate College, the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College, the Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine, the Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing and the Charles E. Schmidt College of Science. FAU is ranked as a High Research Activity institution by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The University is placing special focus on the rapid development of critical areas that form the basis of its strategic plan: Healthy aging, biotech, coastal and marine issues, neuroscience, regenerative medicine, informatics, lifespan and the environment. These areas provide opportunities for faculty and students to build upon FAU's existing strengths in research and scholarship.

For more information, visit http://www.fau.edu.

Florida Atlantic University

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