Is President Obama’s Personality Type To Blame for His Disastrous Debate Performance?

The state of the universe.
Oct. 5 2012 2:34 PM

President Obama Is an Introvert and So Am I

But that doesn’t mean we don’t like you.

U.S. President Barack Obama greets supporters during a campaign stop
President Obama greets supporters during a campaign stop

Photograph by Isaac Brekken/Getty Images.

When I started a new job at a newspaper in the late 1990s, I noticed that one of my editors had four seemingly random letters taped above her computer monitor. “That’s my type,” she explained, and said that I’d soon have my own. Sure enough, after a few weeks human resources herded all the new employees into a conference room and made us fill out a Myers-Briggs personality test. My results showed that I was an almost off-the-scale introvert, which shocked a lot of my colleagues.

Because being a reporter required me to interact with people all day long, and because I had taught myself to be outspoken and gregarious in order to do my job, they assumed that I was an extrovert. But the “I” test result didn't surprise me at all. I knew that big crowds could make me uncomfortable, that a day of constant interaction with sources and editors would make me crave time alone, that it was easy for me to crawl into my own head and shut out the rest of the world.

But being an introvert doesn’t mean that I don’t like people.

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That’s why I disagree with John Heilemann, author of the 2008 campaign book Game Change (whose HBO adaptation just won an Emmy for best miniseries or TV movie). In a recent Los Angeles Review of Books interview, he said that Obama was unusual because, unlike many other successful politicians (Clinton, ahem), our current president doesn’t like people. “He’s not an extrovert,” Heilemann said. “He’s an introvert.”

Clearly, Heilemann is not one of us, because he doesn’t seem to understand what makes me and my fellow introverts tick. But it’s a common misconception. Introverts actually make up a significant portion of the population, probably a quarter to a half, but you'd never know it (we're quieter, after all, and it’s true that we're often driven to pretend to be extroverts in order to fit in). Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, whose work the Myers-Briggs test is based on, first popularized the idea that the world was divided into introverts and extroverts in the 1920s. He defined extroverts as people who are energized by interacting with others. Introverts, on the other hand, are drained by conversation and crowds, hence the need for occasional time alone to recharge.

Jonathan Raunch’s 2003 essay “Caring for Your Introvert” in the Atlantic served as a sort of manifesto for those introverts who feel misunderstood or mistreated by the dominant side of our great cultural rift. He dismisses the common misconception that introverts are just shy (or in harsher interpretations, misanthropic). But it’s true that introverts can find other people tiring, he admits, laying out his own personal formula for social interaction: Raunch needs roughly two hours alone for every hour he spends socializing with others. The introvert’s motto, he suggests, should be, “I’m OK, you’re OK—in small doses.”

Still, psychology can’t seem to completely break away from the idea that there’s something not OK about introverts. The World Health Organization classifies “introverted personality” as a potential health problem, and last year, as recounted in Psychology Today, the American Psychiatric Association considered a proposal, later dropped, for listing introversion as a contributing factor to some personality disorders. (Obama conspiracy theorists would have loved that one: Not only is our president a Kenyan, Muslim, anti-colonialist, terrorist-sympathizer—he’s nuts!) There have even been suggestions that introversion could belong on the autism spectrum, somewhere beyond Asperger’s syndrome.

What is it about introverts that makes people think we’re in some way damaged?

Partly, it’s a function of culture. It’s hard to imagine a society more biased against introverts than modern America. Reticence to engage in group activities is seen as a failing, even a potential sign of deeper psychological problems. (Has the phrase “he was a loner, kept to himself” ever been uttered in a positive context?) Admitting “I’m not really a people person” is enough to tank a job interview. And if you do get hired, opting to head home after work rather than hit the bar with colleagues can lead to accusations of shyness or snobbery.

Misunderstandings between introverts and the extroverts who love them can even be hard on marriages. In his book The Audacity of Hope, Obama describes the adjustments that he and Michelle went through early in their life together. In addition to leaving the butter out after breakfast and forgetting to “twist the little tie around the bread bag,” the future president liked time alone to work and think—to the point that he left his new wife feeling neglected. Obama would “often spend the evening holed up in my office in the back of our railroad apartment; what I considered normal often left Michelle feeling lonely.”

Accounts like that are what lead journalists and armchair psychologists to speculate on Obama’s introversion. Michael Lewis’ recent Vanity Fair profile of the president, while largely flattering, also helped paint a picture of an introvert hurting from his loss of privacy. (Obama enjoys being in the Oval Office on the weekends, for instance, when his aides aren’t there.)

Wednesday night’s lackluster debate performance added to the impression that the president’s personality may get in the way of his political prowess. “Obama behaved like an introvert, and he got steamrolled by the extroverted energy of Mitt Romney,” writes Sophia Dembling, whose book The Introvert’s Way: Living a Quiet Life in a Noisy World is due out in December.

But can Obama—or anyone else, for that matter—truly be “typed” as an introvert or extrovert? Personality tests like the Myers-Briggs exam I was subjected to (technically called the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) are widely used in corporate settings. By some estimates, 2.5 million Americans take it every year. Yet it’s been widely questioned in psychological circles, and a 1991 review by the National Research Council found it largely ineffective. Still, the questionable validity of personality tests doesn’t mean that introversion itself isn’t a real phenomenon, and the observable evidence certainly suggests that Obama qualifies for the “Scarlet I.”

Critics in the so-called chattering class (that description alone tells you it must be packed with extroverts) suggest that Obama’s reluctance to chat up congressmen or hobnob with donors has hurt his legislative agenda and cost him valuable campaign dollars. Extroverts don’t necessarily make better leaders, writes Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, in a recent New York Times op-ed. But they certainly have an easier time standing up to the constant exposure of modern political life. As Wednesday night showed, the president’s tendency to remain calm and low key can cut both ways: Where some observers see a cool head and quiet confidence, others perceive him as detached and coldly unemotional, cowed by a bombastic opponent—or worse yet, imperious and annoyed that he has to stand up there and explain himself to the rest of the world.

If that performance costs him votes, the president might finally get the privacy we introverts all crave—four years earlier than he hopes.

Scott Dodd is an editor at OnEarth magazine and an adjunct professor at Columbia journalism school. Follow him on Twitter.

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