Decoding US president Donald Trump’s tweets has become a sport of sorts, with political Twitter turning out some gems.
For instance, on July 31, a few hours following the announcement that Anthony Scaramucci had been pushed out of the White House after only 10 days of service, and following several other surprise firings, Trump produced an evening tweet that was seen as reality-challenged, and soon became a meme:
Recently, a couple of researchers took a more scientific look at Trump’s tweets for a study just published in Small Business Economics. Martin Obschonka, a professor of psychology at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia, and Christian Fisch, a professor of management at Trier University in Trier, Germany, analyzed the tweets of 106 high-profile entrepreneurs and CEO personalities, including Trump.
Last October, before the US election, the pair extracted the then most recent 3,200 tweets (the maximum Twitter will allow) from each business leader’s Twitter page and fed them into a language-based software analysis program. It linked words used in the tweets to psychological concepts, such as “sadness” or “joy,” and others. Thus, the researchers could mine the tweets for indicators of the “Big Five” traits used in psychological studies to profile someone’s personality and default demeanor: Openness, extraversion, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and neuroticism.
The results? Trump ranked near the lowest percentile in agreeableness, but near the highest in both openness and neuroticism.
It’s important to keep in mind that this study only looked at these traits in relation to the other 100-plus big personalities in the study’s sample group. It did not compare Trump or any other business leader to the general population.
Also, the analysis relies on tweets alone, which is limiting. Citing previous researchers, the study authors say Twitter offers access to telling, unfiltered communication that’s often spontaneous and straight from the heart, so to speak. Nevertheless, we can’t know what they would have uncovered had they parsed letters, email messages, speeches, and other available texts. (Psychologists normally use questionnaires to measure Big Five traits, but as Obschonka explained in the study, “This is obviously not an option in the case of the POTUS.” )
Here’s where Donald Trump’s score on the Big Five measurements fell in comparison to the rest of the group. In the neuroticism category, as one example, his score of 93% means that he scored higher in neuroticism than 93% of the other entrepreneurs and CEOs whose tweets were studied.
For those unfamiliar with the Big Five, this is how the study authors describe the characteristics and the behaviors of those who rank highly in them:
Agreeableness: Favors harmony, and is usually trusting, humble and compliant. People who rank low in this trait “focus on competition and show a rather selfish behavior with a tendency to manipulate others”
Extroversion: Tend to display an “outgoing, talkative, and energetic style in one’s social interactions.”
Conscientiousness: This trait “mirrors self-regulation and the capacity to organize and manage one’s own projects.” Self-discipline and achievement come naturally to someone who ranks highly in this trait.
Openness: Craves change, diversity, and new experiences. This trait is linked to open-mindedness and intellectual curiosity.
Neuroticism: Experiences feelings such as anxiety or guilt more often than others. Usually has a negative perspective on the world, is prone to moodiness, and not very adept at handling stress. While some amount of neuroticism may help a person be more creative, high levels raise the risk of mental illnesses and afflictions, like schizophrenia and substance abuse.
One part of the study took a closer look at the 25 entrepreneurs (PDF, Table 1) who had the largest number of Twitter followers at the time, which included Trump. Among this “superstar” group, his score on openness was similar to that of several company founders: Bill Gates of Microsoft; eBay’s Pierre Omidyar; Sean Parker of Napster; and Michael Bloomberg, who started Bloomberg L.P., and later became New York City mayor.
Most of the luminaries in tech were ranked closer to average in agreeableness, including Elon Musk, founder of Paypal and Tesla; Apple’s CEO Tim Cook; Jack Dorsey, founder of Twitter; and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Michael Dell, creator of his eponymous computer company, and Mickey Arson, former CEO of Carnival Corp. were determined to be most agreeable within this subgroup.
Sharing the lower ranks in this category—along with Trump—was Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn, Rupert Murdoch of News Corp, and Omidyar. Only Napster’s Parker and Mark Cuban, the billionaire who has most aggressively criticized Trump, were found to share similarly high relative levels of neuroticism.
Reflecting on the study’s results, the researchers noted that the combination of extreme openness and extreme disagreeableness detected in the @realdonaldtrump’s tweets is typical of what’s known as a “Schumpeterian entrepreneur,” named for Joseph Schumpeter, the influential early 19th Century Austrian-American economist who coined the term “creative destruction.”
People who display this combination of traits, they explained in the study, “might use their creativity and change orientation to compete with others, to seek social distinction, and to achieve something truly new and unique.”
That pattern, they said, could be mixed blessing, lending fuel to an entrepreneurial economy, but exposing political organizations to an unconventional style of management that may not be tame and considered enough for effective governmental work. In a news release about the study, Obschonka also observed, “We can now ask what such an apparent ‘creative destructor’ personality means for his policy that is influenced by his personality.”
Furthermore, they underscored, the typical successful entrepreneur does not suffer from the same relatively high level of neuroticism and low wellbeing the software picked up in Trump’s tweets. Beyond the Big Five traits, the computer program looked for signs of adjustment skills (having the ability to stay grounded in healthy life goals), happiness (being optimistic), and depression (defined as “has difficulty finding joy in life”) in the tweeted prose. Trump’s scores were not encouraging, placing him in 18th, 15th, and 96th percentile respectively.
This is a limited study, but its conclusions are hardly unique. When Quartz turned to face-reading software to assess videos of Trump’s public appearances, it offered a similar take on the President’s state of mind, finding a high probability of sadness in one pre-election debate speech and both sadness and contempt in his inaugural speech. Anger has also been observed in human assessments of his body language, but that’s a feeling he often doesn’t bother to hide.