The Psychology of Picking a President: What Your Brain Says About Your Vote

You can predict who will win the next presidential election using these simple facts, explains psychologist John D. Gartner.

july-august-2016-pick-a-presidentJohn Cuneo for Reader's Digest

Today, the American president faces increasing pressure and complexity at every turn. Domestic policy demands expertise on an expanding array of topics, and proliferating crises around the world require sudden attention and, often, a quick response.

As a clinical psychologist, I’m most fascinated by this question: Exactly what psychological traits does a candidate need to win the 2016 election and to guide our country successfully? After talking to historians, biographers, and political scientists, I’ve realized that we are increasingly of two minds when it comes to politics—what we want in a president and what we need may be two different things. Appealing to the limbic lobe is how a candidate wins elections, while he or she governs the country by relying almost unremittingly on the cortex.

First, there’s the old brain. At the base of the brain is the limbic lobe, the source of our most basic drives and instincts as well as of our emotions. Responsive to cues that helped our ancestors survive, the old brain strongly influences what appeals to us on a gut level. But sprawling on top of the limbic system is the cortex, or new brain, which sets us apart from other mammals and makes us rational and human. It’s this brain that enables analysis and judgment.

The Brain’s Balancing Act

Our old brain very much resembles a chimpanzee’s. The rise of Donald Trump is not too difficult to understand if you think of the ten candidates at the first Republican debate as a troop of chimpanzees struggling for alpha-male status. The next day, newspaper columnists almost unanimously declared the Trump candidacy dead. Viewers, however, saw the proceedings through their limbic lobe, and they thought that Trump had won. There was the candidate, beating his chest, throwing dirt at his opponents—bigger, louder, and prouder. Even the way Trump styles his hair, making him look taller than his six foot three, resembles the behavior of alpha chimps who, as primatologist Frans de Waal reports, make their hair stand on end to make their bodies look large.

De Waal observes that among chimps and humans, a more submissive male regulates his voice to match a more dominant male at a pitch almost imperceptible to humans. In all but one election since the first TV debate between JFK and Richard Nixon, the man who adjusted his vocal tone lost. The winner was almost always the one who was visibly and audibly more aggressive and confident.

One question we face today is whether our primate programming will accept a woman as the alpha male. Clearly, any woman will have to dominate her opponent, as much as a man would, maybe more so. Hillary Clinton will probably be the test case.

Along with energy and aggressiveness, many of the other traits that underlie presidential success—unsinkable optimism, charisma, confidence, expansive vision, and, often, extroversion—are linked to what is called the hypomanic temperament. People with the hypomanic temperament are not mentally ill, but they do have mildly manic features, as all their driving forces, including the competitive push for dominance, are in overdrive.

Bill Clinton is one example of this temperament. All his drives are writ large. He spent years battling overeating and can’t stop talking. His extroversion and hypomanic energy made him a great campaigner. When he first ran for Congress, he regularly stumped for 36 hours without sleeping. Though perpetually late, he’d leap out of the car every time he saw a handful of people on the street: “That’s ten votes!”

Judgment, the trait most essential to success in governing, is distinctly not associated with hypomanic temperament. It’s quite the opposite: Poor judgment is one of the most distinctive characteristics of hypomania. Impulsivity, arrogance, a tendency to think and act too fast—these all work against the measured, sober, and patient thinking that good judgment requires. Brain-imaging studies show that when people are in a manic state, their limbic system is on fire, while the prefrontal cortex—the part of the new brain tasked with inhibiting and modulating it—is hardly working at all.

Every person alive struggles to balance the two competing sides of human nature, but presidents must do so in the public eye. From journalistic accounts and historical records, we can see how two recent leaders, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, exhibited—or did not exhibit—the traits needed to get into and then occupy the Oval Office. And they also provide a portrait of what a successful candidate needs in 2016.

George W. Bush: Alpha Male in the Oval

In studies when respondents have to weigh one presidential characteristic over another, “strong leader” beats out “shares my values,” “has compassion,” and “cares about people like me.” This is why Americans often elect victorious generals, says University of Texas historian H. W. Brands. “George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Ulysses Grant, and Dwight D. Eisenhower were the alpha males of their time. Though they had no political qualifications to speak of, they kept us safe.” So there are evolutionary reasons to rally behind displays of primal strength—it might help us survive.

With the election of George W. Bush in 2000, America got another alpha-male president. Months after taking office, he stood on the rubble of the World Trade Center with a bullhorn. It was just what the nation needed, and overnight, Bush’s approval rating almost doubled, to 90 percent.

Presidents also need to be visionaries. They must “see over the horizon,” says Jay Winik, author of 1944: FDR and the Year That Changed History, “and take the American people and pull them along, to do things that they may not otherwise want to do.” FDR successfully brought America into the New Deal and World War II. To be a visionary, a person must have a touch of hypomania, the grandiosity to believe you can lead people to the promised land. You have to be irrationally confident, and Bush was.

But his Achilles’ heel was his cortex. He devalued the rational processes of decision making, and he showed disdain for contemplation and an “impatience with doubters and even friendly questions,” journalist Ron Suskind wrote in the New York Times Magazine. When asked why Bush showed little intellectual curiosity, veteran political journalist Bob Woodward said, “He doesn’t like homework.” Bush could lead, but he wouldn’t read, which affected his judgment.

Barack Obama: Philosopher-in-Chief

Obama may be Bush’s opposite. He is a neocortex man to the hilt, Hamlet to Bush’s Tarzan. He never beats his chest, nor is he a hypomanic extrovert like Bill Clinton. He is a classic introvert. Introverts are highly thoughtful and work more deliberatively and cautiously than do extroverts, according to Susan Cain, author of Quiet, a book about the power of introverts.

In small doses, introverts can be charismatic public performers, and Obama was an inspiring campaigner. But when it came time to govern, he withdrew into his work. After Obamacare passed, he should have toured America to hug newly insured citizens and chant, “Yes, we did!” Instead, he seemed to operate under the mistaken notion that good work speaks for itself. In that regard, he operated “very much the way Jimmy Carter used to try to govern: ‘I’m going to do the right thing, and the American people and Congress will follow.’ They won’t,” says Michael Genovese, head of the World Policy Institute at Loyola Marymount University. Part of the job of being president is to perpetually pitch your vision to the public, the press, even your opponents, and then tug them over the rainbow with you.

In 2016, with political and economic difficulties afflicting the world and America’s well-being linked to global forces, whoever has the strength to win needs, more than ever, the wisdom to govern as well. And as much as that makes demands on the candidates, it requires something from us too. We members of the electorate have the obligation to summon our own wisdom.

It’s our task to choose the president we need, not just the one we want, someone who can harness the dynamism of our lower-order attributes to the acumen of higher-order skills. Will we rise to the occasion?

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