Research by John P. Harden examines relationship between presidential narcissism, length of wars

A recent study by Assistant Professor of Political Science John P. Harden has been receiving widespread media attention. “Looking Like a Winner: Leader Narcissism and War Duration” was published this month in the Journal of Conflict Resolution.

Harden has since been interviewed and featured on numerous news sources and websites worldwide, including Newsweek, Salon, International Business Times and IFLscience.

The study is based on U.S. presidents who served between 1897 and 2009 and examines whether there is a link between presidential narcissism and the length of wars the United States was engaged in during that time frame. Harden found that U.S. wars tended to last longer under presidents who scored highly for narcissism.

“Leaders high in grandiose narcissism focus their efforts on maintaining their inflated self-image during war by striving desperately for victory,” Harden says in his abstract. “While most leaders sacrifice their historical image for state interests, more narcissistic leaders only exit wars if they ‘win’ or overcome threats to their self-image.

“Narcissists essentially ignore revealed information and create deadlock to avoid looking like losers. In other words, narcissistic leaders encourage us to look beyond traditional rationalist models of wartime dynamics.”

To create a narcissism score for each president, Harden used a previously existing dataset put together by three researchers to assess the personalities of these leaders.

In Harden’s rankings, of the 19 U.S. presidents who served during this timeframe, Lyndon Johnson scored highest for narcissism (1963-1969), followed by Teddy Roosevelt (1901–1909) and Richard Nixon (1969-1974). Ranked as the least narcissistic was William McKinley (1897–1901), followed by William Taft (1909–1913) and Calvin Coolidge (1923–1929).

“The study showed that eight presidents who scored above average for narcissism — George W. Bush and above — spent an average of 613 days at war, compared to an average of 136 days for those leaders who scored below average,” according to a report by The Ohio State University, where Harden completed part of the research while he was completing a doctoral degree in political science.

“Beyond these raw numbers, the connection between narcissism and war length held up even when taking into account a variety of other factors that could influence how long a war lasts,” Harden said in the report.

“Of course, many factors determine if the United States goes to war and how long wars last, Harden said. But this study showed presidential narcissism is one key factor — one that has been overlooked in previous studies.”

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John P. Harden


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