Research going back as far as 1998 suggests that modern politicians are more narcissistic than people in other professions. But in fact, politicians—at least those in positions of high power—might also be more narcissistic than ever. In a 2013 study published in Psychological Science, we and several colleagues examined a trait called grandiose narcissism, which comprises immodesty, boastfulness and interpersonal dominance (a certain presidential candidate in a gold-plated tower in Manhattan comes to mind). For every president up to and including George W. Bush, we asked eminent biographers and experts to complete extensive personality ratings for the five years before each president took office. The ratings revealed an intriguing trend: Grandiose narcissism levels are higher in more recent presidents than in earlier ones. Despite some caveats to this result, we also found that levels of several other traits, such as those linked to interpersonal oddity, were not higher in more recent presidents. Ultimately, our findings raise the possibility that the mounting pressures on candidates to be telegenic and adept at self-presentation may be selecting for heightened self-centeredness.

Rising narcissism levels in our politicians might be cause for concern. But today’s grueling campaigns might also select for such adaptive traits as emotional resilience, stick-to-itiveness and impulse control. Of course, even if a presidential candidate is driven partly by ambition, this does not mean he or she is not also driven by love of country. Even egomaniacs can be animated by a higher calling. —Scott Lilienfeld and Ashley Watts, professor and graduate student in psychology at Emory University