Emily Yoffe discusses her Myers-Briggs assessment of the candidates' personalities.

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
Feb. 21 2008 12:55 PM

Lots of Personality

Emily Yoffe takes readers' questions on her Myers-Briggs assessment of the candidates.

Slate writer Emily Yoffe was online on Feb. 21 on Washingtonpost.com to take readers' questions on her assessment of the candidates' personalities using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. An unedited transcript of the chat follows.

Emily Yoffe: Hello. I'm Emily Yoffe of Slate. I'm here to discuss my piece, which looked at the personality types of Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John McCain based upon the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. That's a system of looking at personality that comes out of the work of psychiatrist Carl Jung.

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Green Cove Springs, Fla.: Emily, thank you for an excellent article. I found it interesting. I agreed with most of your observations, but not your including JFK in the same group as George W. Bush. I am sure it is probably my bias against Bush, but I would never think he and JFK had any similarities. I would consider JFK as more an idealist than the group you put him in. How could you put someone like JFK, who could inspire you with words, with Bush, who has no concept of words! But an excellent article.

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Emily Yoffe: Thanks. It is important to separate your bias against individuals when looking at type. Artisans, which is the general type of George W. Bush, JFK, and McCain, are all men of action, who want to make bold decisions and have impact. Winston Churchill was also one, and no one beats Churchill for inspiring rhetoric. Remember JFK had a speechwriter, Ted Sorenson (who is working for Obama) who may himself be an Idealist.

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New York: I would be interested to see a breakdown of leaders'/CEOs' personality types, and which are the most common/least common. I'm ESTJ, by the way.

Emily Yoffe: You win! ESTJ "The Supervisor" are 28 percent of top executives according to one study, only beat out by ISTJ (your more reserved counterparts) at 32 percent. You are all Guardians, the reliable, responsible people who keep institutions going.

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Huntington, W.Va.: Why do you refer to Sen. Clinton as "Hillary" while refering to Sens. Obama and McCain by their surnames? If you wanted to avoid any confusion when referencing Bill Clinton, why not simply refer to him specifically when necessary? The article's focus revolves around the current candidates for president. I think your readers could have figured out which Clinton you were referring to.

Emily Yoffe: That's a good point. Over the years, to distinguish the two Clintons, it has become common to use "Hillary." Obviously she decided to go this way herself—look at all her campaign literature. But you're right, at this point it's probably better to consistently use last names.

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Florida: Would not FDR be included in all three groups you highlighted? And isn't that the type of person we really need?

Emily Yoffe: FDR is a "Promoter" an ESTP just like McCain. Both Roosevelts were, as was JFK and LBJ. These people are great in a time of crisis—very decisive and confident. The question is, are the people of action right for all times in history?

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Tokyo: This is a brilliant piece. I'm a political scientist and need to be skeptical; my main worry was that the author might unconsciously have edited the salient characteristics of the three types to fit the candidates. To find out, I should get hold of the original book to get the full predictions and compare for myself—or better yet, get some people to list what they thought were the candidates' chief characteristics, and compare those with the predictions. It would be worth doing (though not by me), as potentially this is some serious social science. Anyway, great journalism, and to a lot of people that trumps academic quibbles.

Emily Yoffe: Thanks so much. Some people wrote in to Slate.com criticizing the article as little better than astrology. But if you look at books that describe the 16 personality types, you can see how different they are from each other. My method was to go through the books and by process of elimination come up with the types. Obviously, in some ways it was easy to make distinctions. Obama's type described a way with words and a "tongue of silver"—that made eliminating Hillary Clinton from that type very easy.

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Washington: This is a fun idea but I was disappointed to see that none of the candidates actually took the personality test. Doesn't that invalidate the entire story? Thanks.

Emily Yoffe: No! This is journalism—I know better than they do what type they are...I agree, it would have been great to get the candidates to fill out the questionnaires, but they're a little busy these days. I think one can make a fair assessment of people much in the public eye and much written about.

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Ferguson, Mo.: Hey, Emily. Thanks for bringing your expertise to this weighty issue. I'm an INTF. Does that make me more likely to prefer another INTF, or just the reverse? What type has proven to be the best predictor of presidential competence, not to mention leadership? (Are they able to work backward to a Wilson or Lincoln or Teddy Roosevelt and see what category they would have been in?) Thanks.

Emily Yoffe: As far as types preferring other types, yes people of the same type can understand each others' perspective very well, but also drive each other crazy because they see their flaws magnified. Corporations who put groups together like to mix it up—you need some types who will say, "We need to preserve our traditions" and some who will say, "We can't keep doing things this way!" There is no perfect presidential type. A lot depends on what the times demand.

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New Hampshire: Hi Emily. I really enjoyed your article, but I thought you had a type off. I think Obama is more of an ENFJ—the best communicators of the group. I know that he said he's messy with paperwork, but judgers frequently say they are disorganized because they have such high standards. Clinton was definitely right on. I don't know enough about McCain to make a distinction. Thanks.

Emily Yoffe: That's possible. I was taking him at his word that his desk is a mess and if you hand him a piece of paper he'll lose it. Not a very "J" trait—which usually indicates someone who thrives on order and schedules. But even if you're right, he's still an Idealist, which is the overarching type.

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Lake Tahoe, Calif.: This article seems to say much more about Yoffe's opinions than the three candidate's personality profiles. Teddy, FDR and JFK are the same type of personality as McCain, and yet you characterize him with clear implications of dangerous risk instead of the leadership and charisma they possessed? Obama is closest to Honest Abe, but he's nothing but a rare, clueless dreamer? Instead of a thinly veiled promotion to vote Hillary, why didn't you just come out and say it?

Emily Yoffe: Other people thought my portrait of Hillary was too negative! Each type has its pluses and minuses—there is no good or bad type. The FDR, JFK type are dynamic and active. That means they can get you out of trouble, or get you into trouble.
I thought it was interesting that today's New York Times story about the McCain scandalette quoted a friend saying McCain could be imprudent and reckless—typical traits of the Artisan!

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New York: Emily, what is your personality type?

Emily Yoffe: I'm an ENTP—a difficult personality type. My husband's favorite line in the description of my type: "The ENTPs mate can find their one-up, one-down style of conversation rather wearying."

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Hong Kong, China: Emily, has the U.S. ever had a president who was an "I" (Introvert) personality type? If so, how did that affect their electability and performance?

Emily Yoffe: Yes, there have been I—introverted presidents. Thomas Jefferson was an INTP "The Architect." In the piece I did in 2000, I concluded Al Gore was also an INTP. Introverts are more unusual in politics and I think they probably have a harder time today than in Jefferson's day in running for office.

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Boston: "Grand theories are not for the ESTP." I don't get it—both McCain and Bush are said to be ESTP. How does this personality trait square with Bush's "freedom agenda," which has almost messianic, grand-theory tones to it?

Emily Yoffe: The ESTPs, who are Artisans, are not driven by ideology. That doesn't mean any particular type can't have strongly held views. But don't you think Bush is more about taking bold action to change the world than about bringing his long-held philosophical beliefs to fruition?

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New York: Let's get this out of the way at the get-go: You are not aware whether any of these candidates has sat down and actually taken this test or any other psychological profile, and are also unaware of any results from said testing, correct?

Emily Yoffe: That's correct. And given what I have concluded about their personality types, I think only Obama, who is an ENFP, which makes him a deeply introspective idealist, would be really interested in the personal and theoretical dimensions of this. McCain would probably say, "I don't have time for this junk."

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New York: Is there any info on the MB types of supporters? Do certain types lean towards certain candidates/parties?

Emily Yoffe: Very interesting question. I would think in general people would be attracted to their own types. Most of the population are either Guardians (Hillary Clinton's type) or Artisans (John McCain's type). And the overwhelming majority of our presidents have been Guardians (George Washington to George H.W. Bush) or Artisans (JFK, George W. Bush). People are probably looking for a reliable stabilizer or a person of action. Obama would be a very unusual presidential type—an Idealist.

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Des Moines, Iowa: Dear Ms. Yoffe, I was glad to see something written about these presidential candidates personality styles. Being a life coach familiar with the personality types, I knew Obama (my first and only choice) was an idealist. The more concrete rational thinkers have trouble with idealists because they can't think outside the box, and idealists are excellent in this area, and this visualizing that idealists have is hard for some personality types to grasp. My best political friend and I share an adoration for Obama, and we agree that Obama is what this country needs right now. One of the reasons for the sudden worldwide love for Obama is because people trust him, and I don't think that's true with the other candidates—certainly not Hillary. But thank you for this article. Hopefully it will give the public a better understanding of him and encourage more support for Obama. Have a great day from a true ENFJ! And you know that ENFJs are always right about their judgments!

Emily Yoffe: Well, you make the point raised in the last question. As an ENFJ, you are an Idealist yourself, so are happy to see another one potentially leading the country. His effect on people is so baffling and maddening to the other candidates who see the Idealists uplift as so much hot air. I think there will be a lot of discussion as the months go on about the utility of soaring rhetoric.

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Washington: Fascinating article, thank you! I was interested to learn that both Jefferson and Al Gore were INTPs, the same as I am (I'm a veterinarian). Do introverts ever make better politicians than extroverts, or are we doomed by our introversion to be left to other fields? Thanks.

Emily Yoffe: Isn't veterinarian the perfect profession for an introvert—you mostly have to only talk to the animals! I think Al Gore's introversion did hurt him. When he tried to be an ebullient people greeter, the public could feel the phoniness. It's unusual for an introvert to be attracted to politics. Probably those that are are more interested in the governing, back stage parts than in campaigning. I read one recent profile of Gore in which a reporter was traveling with him and the reporter's big suitcase was blocking Gore from some people who recognized him and wanted to come greet him. The reporter went to move his bag and Gore whispered, "No, don't." THAT'S an introvert.

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Portland, Ore.: I'm not sure you bothered to go into this during your original research, but as a diehard and disappointed John Edwards supporter, I just kind of wonder what his personality type was, and what that indicated for his leadership style?

Emily Yoffe: I didn't do Edwards, but let's see. He's an E—an extrovert. I think he's an S—a concrete as opposed to an abstract (N) thinker. Although he comes off as being motivated by his feelings, I actually think he's more tough-minded, so T, not F. And I read that he was chronically late on the campaign trail, by a lot, so a P, not a J. So he's an ESTP—same as McCain. Yes, I know that doesn't initially make sense. But I think Edwards is driven by a desire to DO, to be in the arena, make an impact. His desire to help is not driven by Idealism, like Obama, but by a desire for action.

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Arlington, Va.: You're attempting something very dangerous—you're psychoanalyzing from afar. I'm an INTJ, but I'm a powerful public speaker and a strong leader—because I have to be. If you watched me work, you never would guess I'm an INTJ. Any chance you've been fooled by the candidates?

Emily Yoffe: No, no chance whatsoever, because I'm an ENTP and I have strong intuitive powers! I agree you can't type someone based on a single encounter. But all three candidates have been in the spotlight for years—some for many years—and there is a great deal of literature about their behaviors and styles. So I feel pretty confident. I did have a big debate about whether Hillary was an introvert or extrovert. I decided on extrovert because she is not one of those people who likes to lock herself in her office for hours just to think. But she's just barely an extrovert, unlike her husband who is totally extroverted.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I'm guessing that most of the politicians on Capitol Hill are either Artisians or Guardians. I'm curious to know how you think an administration full of Guardians and Artisians would operate with someone like Obama (Idealist) as president?

Emily Yoffe: Most people are either Artisans or Guardians, and yes politics is mostly divided between them. You raise a fascinating question about how other, more concrete, down-to-earth types would respond over the long haul to an Idealist. I think you can see in the campaign that Artisan McCain and Guardian Clinton find all the rhetoric maddening and are baffled it works. But Obama has also explicitly recognized that he has to get more earthbound or else the whole thing could crash. Thus his recent speeches emphasizing policy proposals.

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Washington: Emily, I posted on your Facebook wall, but I'll reiterate here: As a Myers-Briggs apologist and ENFP (the type most likely—because of a fascination with people—to enjoy typing others), I must disagree with your assessment of Hillary. Isn't she more the ENTJ "Field Marshal"? An S never would pen the existential musings of Hillary's college days, and though her language is more direct, policy-oriented and analytically focused (the mark of strong J and T preferences, which also may render her more "masculine" and/or S to the observer), Hillary is still in essence an ideas person. She's just an overbearing one, prone to "sentimental streaks," "self-aggrandizement" and dictatorial means when she feels others aren't realizing her vision effectively enough.

Emily Yoffe: Several people have made the same critique—that Hillary is the more intuitive type—the ENTJ. Yes, she wrote some existential letters as a girl (almost all teenagers, no matter what the type, tend to get existential). But look at her behavior in college: sophomore class president, senior class president. In the summer of 1968 she wasn't marching and hanging out on a commune, she came to Washington for a congressional internship and wrote policy papers on revenue sharing. That is a Guardian, not a Rational! I think the failure of her health care proposal was that she reached outside the comfort zone of her type. She is not a strategist or a diplomat, so when she undertook a grand redesign, it collapsed. She has been much more comfortable and effective as a senator working within institutional structures to make incremental changes—all Guardian behavior.

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Westwood, Mass.: If McCain is an ESTP and those personality types have unusually resourceful survival skills, can resourcefulness under pressure turn into expediency? If so, what are the downsides to the country for that in a president? I was struck by McCain's resourcefulness/expediency in a recent story of him gaming the public campaign finance rules—where he has been on a moral frontline—to use the option of public funding as collateral for a critical private bank loan that kept his campaign afloat before the New Hampshire primary. What else would he do in office if he were backed into a corner on a domestic or foreign issue/crisis?

washingtonpost.com: McCain Got Loan by Pledging to Seek Federal Funds(Post, Feb. 16)

Emily Yoffe: Very astute point. That is perfect ESTP behavior—you do what's necessary at the time to make something happen. Then you worry about the fallout, which you will be able to handle later because you're so good at improvising solutions. ESTPs can be great leaders—decisive, innovative, confident. They can also be too confident and act without enough information. George W. Bush is an ESTP. It's interesting that England turned to an ESTP, Winston Churchill, in time of peril, then threw him out of office once he'd won the war for them. The public knew they needed a different post-War personality type.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Maybe that's why this country has been going downhill—we need the ENFPs as leaders and the ESTJs as the worker bees, not the other way around!

Emily Yoffe: The ENFP is Obama—an idealist. As I point out in Slate, very few Idealists get into high elective office. They are better know as leaders of movements: Thomas Paine, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. Obama would be a real break from our usual presidential type. But every Idealist needs worker bees. Obama has even said so when he acknowledged he needs people around him to set up and run systems. Obviously, he has done that very well in this campaign.

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La Plata, Md.: Ms. Yoffe, we're discussing your Slate piece on a separate discussion group, even as I type this, and the question has come up as to what your qualifications are for making these evaluations of these politicians against the MTBI "scale"? Earlier you pointed out that you felt this was "journalism," but you have not indicated whether or not you have any background in administering the MTBI, or even any psychological background that might influence where you place a person on the MTBI "scale." (We have a "trained MTBI administrator" participating in our group, and she has contended in the past that laymen often "misapply" personality traits on that scale.) All I can see is that you are applying what you've recently read about the MTBI. Do you have any other qualifications that might inform your judgments?

Emily Yoffe: Has your group come to different conclusions that I did about the personality types? There are 16 types, so everyone fits one of those types. I thought it was an interesting journalist project to see what made sense. Experts in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator write books and draw conclusions about famous people as to their type. I'm sure Thomas Jefferson did not take the MBTI, but he's clearly a INTP.

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Chicago: Have there ever been a Rational president? Why do you think there have been so few?

Emily Yoffe: Yes, according to the book, Presidential Temperament by Ray Choiniere and David Keirsey, there have been a few: John Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Lincoln, Eisenhower. For one thing, there aren't very many Rationals in the general population. Eighty-five percent of people are either Artisans or Guardians according to Keirsey. For another, rationals are more abstract thinkers, so they can be kind of a baffling type to more concrete thinkers.

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Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. I appreciate all your thoughtful questions. May the best type win!