Barack Obama and Mitt Romney may appear to be originals. But they—like all the rest of us—have inherited some of their political perspectives.
The “genetics of politics,” as academics call this budding field, is beginning to establish some of the biological foundations of conservative and liberal attitudes and voting habits. Recently, Peter Hatemi of Pennsylvania State University and Rose McDermott of Brown University reevaluated much of the evidence, concluding that “genetic influences account for a substantial portion of individual differences in political traits”—perhaps as much as 40 to 60 percent.
Pundits have saturated us with accounts of Obama’s childhood and Romney’s Mormonism. But though each man’s history may play a role, that history isn’t the whole story: we need to know who they are, biologically and genetically speaking.
From my research, I have come to believe that humankind has evolved four broad primary styles of thinking and behaving, each associated with one of four universal brain systems: the testosterone, estrogen, serotonin, and dopamine systems. Each of us is a unique mix of all of these, of course, but we express the traits of some more than others. Hence those who are particularly expressive of traits linked with testosterone I call Directors; those primarily expressive of estrogen I call Negotiators; of serotonin, Builders; and of dopamine, Explorers. My information comes from multiple sources, including brain scanning, genetics, neurotransmitter and hormone systems, and a scientific questionnaire I constructed, which resides on the dating site Chemistry.com, a subsidiary of Match.com, and which has been taken by more than 12 million people. (Match.com is owned by IAC, which also owns Newsweek.)
Obama and Romney share several of the Director traits, but beyond these, their similarities end. Which man is better built (biologically) to improve bipartisanship in Congress? Which is likely to win the game of brinksmanship with Iran? Personality has patterns. And analyzing those patterns may give voters a deeper perspective into these somewhat enigmatic men.
Testosterone: Obama and Romney Score High
Much is known about testosterone and its effects on behavior. As fetal testosterone washes over the developing brain, it enhances visual and spatial perception, and builds the capacity for deep but relatively few interests and a keen understanding of “rule-based systems,” from mechanics to computers, math, engineering, or music. This is Romney to a T. If R.B. Scott, a fellow Mormon who has followed Romney’s career for more than 20 years, has it right in his book Mitt Romney: An Inside Look at the Man and His Politics, Romney likes nothing better than to be tucking into a mountain of spreadsheets. Testosterone is linked with an acute sensitivity to rank and the drive to be top dog, No. 1. Romney has worked assiduously to achieve high rank in the Mormon Church.
Data also link testosterone with the tendencies to be less socially aware, with poorer emotion recognition, less eye contact, and less verbal fluency. Perhaps this is why Romney makes so many gaffes. He appears to be less empathetic, too. A prominent member of Boston’s business community who has known Romney for years said of him, “But there’s no heart, like the Tin Man.” To be fair, this lack of emotional expression may stem from another testosterone-related trait, “emotional containment.”
Obama shares some of Romney’s testosterone-linked traits. Some regard him as aloof, a variation of “emotional containment.” Both men also tend to be self-confident, assertive, independent, and competitive. Scott writes that to Romney, a game of pickup basketball in the driveway almost always turns into a “blood sport”; Obama is apparently equally competitive, even in a game of tennis with Michelle. Additionally, both men appear to be acutely analytical, exacting, and data-driven—all traits linked with elevated-testosterone activity.
Will this style of thinking and behaving be good for the U.S. today? It will certainly challenge Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (another high-testosterone individual), but it may be lethal when dealing with the far more socially nuanced leaders of China and the rest of Asia.
Estrogen: Obama Scores High
If Romney shows more traits of the testosterone system, Obama is noticeably more expressive of traits linked with estrogen—which is not strictly a female hormone; football players often express elevated estrogen. The effects of estrogen begin in the womb, contributing to a more contextual, holistic, big-picture, long-term view, as well as superb linguistic skills. Obama expresses these traits in spades. Jodi Kantor, in The Obamas, reports that he retreats to his office after Michelle and the girls have gone to bed to pour over information on the issues of the day. Absorbing vast quantities of data and ideas on a broad range of topics is Obama’s forte. He also has verbal talents, and is known as a gifted public speaker.
Other traits associated with estrogen include empathy, nurturing, intuition, and people skills, as well as agreeableness and generosity. By now, Obama’s decision to pass up lucrative job opportunities to help the poor in Chicago is well known. Kantor also says he reportedly reads 10 letters from the public every day and tears up when moved. As he said in an interview with Barbara Walters, “I’m a softie.”
To my mind, Lincoln was a striking example of this style (although Lincoln showed many traits of the testosterone system as well). Lincoln cried easily, suffered for the oppressed, deliberated endlessly before making a decision, was a natural orator, and read voraciously to remain in touch with every issue of the times. But Lincoln paid a heavy price by not dealing decisively with some of his generals. More recently, many (including Michelle Obama) regarded the initial White House staff under Obama as dysfunctional, due to the president’s tolerance for staff failure.
High-estrogen Americans who believe that power must be shared and balanced will most likely regard Obama’s predisposition for this form of negotiating as elegant and fruitful, while rank-oriented, high-testosterone Americans are likely to regard him as weak. Romney certainly does. Romney feels it is essential to be No. 1—more powerful than all other countries, as he clearly wrote in No Apology. But from the biological perspective, Obama isn’t weak. He simply achieves his goals with a social subtlety that the high-testosterone type can’t grasp. But the Chinese will.
Serotonin: Romney Scores Very High
Caution, observing social norms, following the rules, respecting authority, orderliness, adherence to plans and methods, frugality, figural and number creativity, and religiosity all are traits linked with the activities of the serotonin system. And Romney expresses them, par excellence.
Order is his middle name, as his barber knows. His personal assistant, Garrett Jackson, said in The New York Times that “Mr. Romney always wants a plan.” And Romney needs things to be under control—his control. So he apparently manages everything. When, in 2006, he began to seek the Republican nomination for the presidency, he assembled his entire family clan and requested that they decline to talk to reporters; instead he instructed them to direct all journalists to his public-relations staff. Moreover, Romney clearly respects the command-and-control hierarchy of the Mormon Church. And Romney is traditional, conventional—a central trait of the serotonin system. Although he is inventive in business, Romney is, in his personal life, an enduring supporter of his religion and his family. Those with this predisposition are also civic-minded. Indeed, Romney says that he feels called to serve. This sense of duty, I suspect, stems from a different biological source than Obama’s compassion for the underdog.
Dopamine: Obama Scores Far Higher
If Romney expresses far more traits linked with the serotonin system, Obama appears to express more traits linked with dopamine. Genes in the dopamine system are extensively associated, in biological literature, with novelty seeking and risk taking, spontaneity and energy. Men and women expressive of this neural circuit also tend to be intellectually curious, creative, mentally flexible, adaptable, and optimistic. If Romney focuses on the negative, Obama says, “I am the eternal optimist.” Obama is also a risk taker, the raid on the bin Laden compound a stunning example. (I suspect that if Romney had been president, his respect for others in positions of authority would have inhibited him from making such a bold attempt.)
Obama dislikes hierarchy. As Kantor writes of his daily meetings, “They had no agenda. Participants just went around the room and raised the issues they wanted to. There was no process on anything.” Obama reportedly also likes to surround himself with individuals who express disparate perspectives, most likely due to his inquisitive nature. Obama exudes energy, too; and he has an animated face, more traits linked with the dopamine system. Last, as David Sanger reports in his book Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power, Obama has been flexible and imaginative in his strategies concerning international affairs. Mental flexibility, imagination, and creativity are traits linked with both the dopamine and estrogen systems in the brain.
There’s much more we could know—if Obama and Romney were to take my personality test—about the genetic underpinnings likely to affect the ways each would lead. But no man is an island, particularly not the president. So I would like to offer one modest piece of (biological) advice to both: surround yourself with people who don’t think the way you do. Recent data from Stanford University indicates that “in the long run teams do better when they are composed of people with the widest possible range of personalities.”
Four Brain Systems That Contribute to Personality:
Qualities: analytical, tough-minded, direct (often blunt), exacting, skeptical, and determined to win.
Examples: Nicolas Sarkozy, Margaret Thatcher, George Patton
Qualities: sees the big picture, has people skills, verbal skills; imaginative, intuitive, compassionate.
Examples: Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Bill Clinton
Qualities: cautious, conventional, concrete, meticulous, respectful of rules and authority, religious.
Examples: Dwight D. Eisenhower, Colin Powell, George W. Bush
Qualities: curious, creative, spontaneous, energetic, mentally flexible, daring.
Examples: Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy, Teddy Roosevelt