Trump's tweets indicate an 'emotionally unstable innovator' prone to mental illness: scientists
Pres. Donald Trump (screen capture)

It’s widely known that, for better or worse, Donald Trump loves to use Twitter as a major means of communication. The popular social media platform allows him to instantly rile up his base, attack opponents, and distract attention away from damaging news stories. While these tweets are often used to cause confusion or chaos, scientists are giving them a new purpose—as data that can be analyzed using artificial intelligence to determine personality traits and psychological profiles. What they found was that, compared to other high-profile business leaders, Trump is an “emotionally unstable innovator” that scores high in neuroticism.

Trump was just one of 106 entrepreneurs who were analyzed by the international research team led by Martin Obschonka, a psychology professor at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia. Other notable names examined in the study recently published in Small Business Economics included Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and Rupert Murdoch. Since directly obtaining personality data from such famous people is difficult if not impossible in many cases, tweets provided a great opportunity due to their relatively unfiltered and personal language, which can be quickly analyzed with machine-learning methods that identify patterns in the text.

These methods rely on statistical models that were “trained” on previously-collected data from thousands of individuals who completed personality questionnaires. By identifying correlations between specific language choices and personality traits, their software could then predict traits just based on samples of personal language alone, like those found in tweets.

Although it would be interesting to see analyses of Trump’s tweets as president, it was October 2016 when Obschonka and colleagues collected the most recent 3,200 tweets (the maximum Twitter will allow) for each entrepreneur and fed them into their program, which linked words and phrases to various personality traits, such as openness, extraversion, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and neuroticism.

The results revealed a story about Trump’s personality. Compared to other influential business leaders, he scored higher in “openness to new experience,” which involves being open to new ideas and unconventional solutions. He also scored very low in “agreeableness,” which is associated with a focus on competition, social distinction, and Machiavellianism. This combination of traits is characteristic of an innovator personality, but specifically one known as a “Schumpeterian’ entrepreneur.

This personality style, described in the 1930s by researcher Joseph Schumpeter, refers to someone that is creative, competitive, and likes to break the rules of how things are usually done. It is a style that’s not uncommon among successful people, but Professor Obschonka pointed out that what could be good for an entrepreneur might be dangerous for a political leader:

"Being a single-minded, independent and creative rule-breaker can be good traits for entrepreneurs but they are probably more unusual in high-level politicians, particularly when coupled with high neuroticism. Such a personality pattern could be something like a double-edged sword: more entrepreneurial thinking and acting in high-level politicians could boost an entrepreneurial economy, but such entrepreneurial personalities could also show an unconventional political leadership style that is highly successful in the business world but maybe not so successful in the political realm that requires careful diplomacy instead of risky entrepreneurial thirst for action.”

Given that Trump scored higher in neuroticism than 93% of the other entrepreneurs, we must think about how these personality traits can interact in ways that negatively influence his policy decisions and diplomatic efforts. Someone high in neuroticism handles stress poorly and is more prone to anxiety, moodiness, and negative perspectives on the world. While some neuroticism can promote creativity, it can also increase the risk of mental illness.

This research demonstrates an important new way to use technology to understand human behavior and psychology in the absence of psychological examination and questionnaire data. While social media platforms like Twitter only provide access to a person’s online personality and not their real one, it can still be a powerful predictive tool for analyzing figures who post frequently and openly. Of course, the true accuracy of these methods cannot be known for sure, but the kind of A.I. tech that is quickly changing our world says that we have an innovator in the White House that is also emotionally unstable. While these insights may be worrisome, they can be used to help us better understand, predict, and respond to Trump’s actions in the future in ways that can minimize the damage he inflicts.

Bobby Azarian is a science writer with a PhD in neuroscience. His research has been published in journals such as Cognition & Emotion and Human Brain Mapping, and he has written for The Atlantic, The New York Times, BBC Future, Scientific American, Psychology Today, and others. Follow him on twitter @BobbyAzarian.