Policies of Scale: Efficient Global Policy

A Psychological Profile of Ben Bernanke

From Stephen Harper to Ben Bernanke

I took a fascinating graduate course at The Maxwell School of Syracuse University from Dr. Margaret “Peg” Hermann, a leading political psychologist. She taught us the theory and methodology of psychologically profiling political leaders, and over the course of the semester we each completed a profile of a leader of our choice. I have long been fascinated with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and I did my profile of him. It was a very intriguing exercise. As Dr. Hermann wrote in “Assessing Leadership Style: A Trait Analysis” (1999, 2002):

“There is a certain fascination with analyzing political leaders. As a result, biographies on current political figures become best sellers and the triumphs as well as the tragedies of political leaders  become newspaper headlines. A major reason for our curiosity about the personal characteristics of such leaders is the realization that their preferences, the things they believe in and work for, and the ways they go about making decisions can influence our lives” (1).

Note: all quotes and page references (#) are for “Assessing Leadership Style” unless otherwise stated.

There was a lot speculation and talk about what the Federal Reserve would or would not do to help the economy, and some had begun to think about this question in terms of Ben Bernanke’s personality. I was struck in particular by what David Beckworth said:

“As you know, monetary policy has become very politicized on the right and the Fed may fear it would jeopardize some of its freedoms by changing to something like a NGDP target before the election.  However, I believe the more important factor is Bernanke’s leadership.  Ben Bernanke is a nice guy, almost to a fault.  The academic Bernanke who lectured Japan got snuffed out by the consensus-building, let’s-all-get-along management style with which  Bernanke runs the Fed.  In normal times consensus building may work; it the heat of the battle a general who calls the shots is needed.”  


 This got me thinking, why not do a leadership analysis of Bernanke? We can put Beckworth’s theory to the test. Does Bernanke care about consensus building? Is it more important to him than getting things done? How has the financial crisis changed him, if at all? Is the public Bernanke an accurate avatar of the private Bernanke? These are indeed interesting questions, and having a better idea of the answers may help in projecting what he may do in the future as head of the Fed, surely an important consideration to everyone who participates in the American economy.

How to Profile A Leader

Unfortunately I was unable to put Bernanke through a series of psychological tests to determine his leadership style. However, “One way of learning more about political leaders that does not require their cooperation is by examining what they say.” And that’s what Dr. Hermann had in mind when she developed her approach to leadership analysis called Leadership Trait Analysis (LTA). “By analyzing the content of what political leaders say, we can begin to learn something about the images they display in public even when such individuals are unavailable for the more usual assessment techniques” (1).

When you set out to run someone through LTA, the process begins by collecting texts of the their spoken words. This included speeches, interviews, press conferences, testimony, etc. However, preference is given to extemporaneous speech as it is most likely to reflect the leader’s personality; speeches can be prepared by others while audiences do not interrupt. But, interviewers and reporters can press the leader on any issue they choose, pushing them outside the boundaries of preparedness. As early as 1999, Dr. Hermann felt confident that “the analyst can develop an adequate assessment of leadership style based on 50 interview responses of one hundred words or more in length [each],” or a minimum of 5000 words (3). Nonetheless, she has pushed her students to compile as much information as is possible. For this piece I analyzed 233,908 of Ben Bernanke’s words.

The texts are then “coded.” In the founding days of LTA, this coding had to be done by hand. Dr. Hermann and her colleagues would spend days hand-marking the text for grammatical detail (“us” versus “them,” “I” versus “we,” etc); negative versus positive statements (“we can do this” versus “they won’t let us”); frequency of topics, events, or ideas (the more a leader speaks about an issue, the more salient it is to them), and other markers. “In effect, the trait analysis is quantitative in nature and employs frequency counts” (11).

Some of Dr. Hermann’s students grew tiresome of this process, and started a software company called Social Science Automation to develop a product to automate coding called Profiler Plus.

At this point you’re probably (hopefully) thinking, “this is pretty interesting.” You’re probably also wondering, “is this at all a helpful analysis?” Fair question, and it is one Dr. Hermann and other political psychologists have been asked numerous times. Political psychology and leader profiling from its beginning met with significant interest from the defense and intelligence communities, and they helped fund much of the work done on the topic. Social Science Automation has worked with many government organizations, including the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and many agencies within the intelligence community. In fact, Dr. Hermann regularly advises and trains the US defense and intelligence communities on leader analysis. While not a perfect science, psychological profiling using Profiler Plus provides a unique perspective on leaders and has been for decades now an element used by the US government to build as complete as possible an understanding of leaders.

Leadership Trait Analysis

Let’s go back to LTA and discuss it in brief detail before giving you the results of Bernanke. “Leaders face several dilemmas in affecting policy: (a) how to maintain control over policy while still delegating authority to other actors in the government; and (b) how to shape the policy agenda when situations are being defined and problems as well as opportunities are being perceived and structured by others in the political system. The particular leadership style that leaders adopt can affect the manner in which they deal with these dilemmas and, in turn, the nature of the decision-making process” (4-5).

According to Dr. Hermann’s LTA, leadership styles are constructed on the answers to the following questions:

1. How do leaders react to political constraints in their environment – do they respect or challenge such constraints?

2. How open are leaders to incoming information – do they selectively use information or are they open to information directing their response?

3. What are the leaders’ reasons for seeking their positions – are they driven by an internal focus of attention within themselves or by the relationships that can be formed with salient constituents? Put another way, are they motivated by problems or relationships?

LTA scores leaders on seven categories to provide the answers to the above three questions:

1. Belief in one’s own ability to control events

2. Need for power and influence

3. Conceptual complexity – “the degree of differentiation which an individual shows in describing or discussing other people, places, policies, ideas, or things ” (22)

4. Self-confidence

5. Motivation for seeking office (Task orientation)

6. Distrust of others

7. In-group bias

A good amount of detail of what these categories exactly mean and how they are scored exists, however I do not have the space here to go into it. The details can be found in Dr. Hermann’s “Assessing Leadership Style” paper (full citation at end of article). Briefly:

1. Leaders who are high in their belief that they can control what happens and in the need for power have been found to challenge constraints, and vice versa.

2. Leaders whose scores on conceptual complexity are higher than their self-confidence scores are open to new information. “They are generally more pragmatic and responsive to the interests, needs, ideas, and demands of others.” Those whose complexity is lower than confidence tend to be more closed to new information.

3. “Leaders are driven, in general, either by an internal focus (problem) – a particular cause, ideology, a specific set of interests – or by the desire for a certain kind of feedback from those in their environment (a relationship) – acceptance, power, support, acclaim.” The motivation for seeking office, distrust of others, and in-group bias are combined to measure why the leader sought office and their need to preserve and secure the group they are leading.

Ben Bernanke – The Opportunistic Leader

Before we discuss Bernanke’s raw scores, I will give you the executive summary. He (1) respects constraints, (2) is open to information, and (3) is problem-focused. This makes him a “Opportunistic” leader according to LTA. A Opportunistic leader is expedient. Bargaining lies at the heart of their strategy, and they work for consensus among other important actors. This puts him in the leadership style  company of the late Serbian president Zoran Djindjic, former Prime Ministers John Howard, Silvio Berlusconi, Jose Socrates, Jose Maria Anzar, Jose Luis Zapatero, and current Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan .

His style as a function of responsiveness to constraints, openness to information, and motivation suggests he is “reactive” leader who focuses on assessing what is possible in the current situation given the nature of the problem and considers what important constituencies would allow. This is a fitting style for an economist and a Fed chair. Because he is neither elected nor accountable to an electorate, he can be focused on the specific problems of the Federal Reserve. And, his economics training gives him a high degree of rationality and appreciation for structure.

In analyzing Bernanke, I made sure to include a number of texts from before he was Fed chair to ensure that his position did not have undue effect on the LTA results.

Bernanke’s Raw Scores

LTA scores mean nothing without a group of other leaders with which to compare. The table below includes a norming set of data from LTA constructed under Dr. Hermann. The sample size for the World Leaders is 284 while the Anglo-American sample size is 15. These data begin in 1945 and go to the present.



World Leaders


Ben Bernanke








Control over events









Need for power









Conceptual complexity


















Task orientation









Distrust of others









In-group bias










As you can see, I ran four sets of Bernanke’s text through the analysis. The first dichotomy is date specific. My point of division is September 15th, 2008, the day the Dow Jones Industrial lost 499 points on Lehman’s bankruptcy announcement. The second dichotomy is extemporaneous speech (interviews, Congressional Q&A, etc.) versus prepared speech (speeches, testimony, etc.).

The data offers a number of interesting observations:

1. Bernanke’s conceptual complexity and task orientation are quite high. He’s obviously very knowledgeable where his job is concerned, and he is someone who focuses acutely on problems. “For leaders who emphasize the problem, moving the group [e.g. the Fed, Congress, the White House, and/or the country] forward toward a goal is their principle purpose for assuming leadership.” These leaders see the world in terms of problems and their role as providing solutions, and constantly ask for and expect movement on issue (25-26), hence his willingness to act despite respecting the limits to power and roles of other government agencies. Even though Bernanke is perceived by some as being too nice, no one can question his determination to make something happen. It is his concern for key constituents – in this case, other decision-makers – that holds him back from quicker decision-making.

2. His need for power is average. He did serve two consecutive terms as an elected member of the school board of Montgomery Township, NJ, but that’s far from ruling Gotham. Although the Fed chair is nothing to sneeze at, we’re unlikely to see him on the 2016 presidential ticket. No surprise there.

3. The scores for control over events, distrust of others, and in-group bias are quite low, suggesting a good amount of pragmatism with a case-by-case approach to decision-making. When combined, they suggest that he respects, or at least accedes, to the constraints he perceives and works within these limits. Leaders with these traits tend to prefer building consensus around solutions rather than dictating or forcing decisions. For leaders who do not believe they can control events, fear of failure tends to crowd out sense of timing. The extended period of debate among the Federal Reserve over QE3 may well have had something to do with this.

4. Something quite interesting happens when he goes off script. When on-script, he is measured and conservative. But when he speaks extemporaneously, his sense of control over events, his need for power, and his self-confidence all increase markedly. We see he is a little more open to the political context behind the scenes than he lets on when reading from a text.

5. We also see some shifts before and after the Lehman bankruptcy. Even though events become more difficult to control, his sense of control increases, as does his self confidence and need for power. As the country faces challenges in determining and rallying around a strategy, his task orientation shifts a little from problem-focused decision-making towards relationship, or group-focused decision-making. As a central player with limited powers, this makes a degree of sense as he puts more effort into urging other decision-makers to use their powers.

After seeing the data, Dr. Hermann sent me the following reaction:

“Clearly he is more open to information than either the world leaders or other Anglo-American leaders, so he is probing for information all the time. And the scores on distrust of others and in-group bias would suggest a more case-by-case approach to politics. With regard to leadership style, he seems much more the opportunistic leader – and the good economist since this would suggest that he is a rational actor, taking situational data into account, weighing options, and going with what gives him the most reward at the least cost. His extemporaneous speech suggests that he is a little more willing to challenge constraints when not in front of the camera.”

Bernanke, Congress, and QE3

LTA allows the analyst to compare the results to prior actions with an eye on the future. Although he is a presidential appointee, he still has constituents. He works for the American people, and as one himself, the economic condition of the country is his prime concern. While some people may question his policy decisions, as far as I know no one questions his dedication to the country or his job. As someone who respects constraints, he has nonetheless pushed the limits of what the Fed can do, especially with QE3. However, Bernanke does have a strong respect for statutory limits and the sanctity (and responsibility) of other government entities. For example, an important constituent to Bernanke is Congress, whom he would prefer do much more of the lifting:

” “Monetary policy is not a panacea,” he told the Joint Economic Committee of Congress on June 7 [2012]. “It would be much better to have a broad-based policy effort addressing a whole variety of issues. I leave the details to Congress, which has considered many of these issues. I’d feel much more comfortable if Congress would take some of this burden from us and address those issues.””

Thus we see a Fed Chair who would like to see one of his more important constituents do more than they are doing, yet has taken on some of their role because he is so focused on the problems at hand and expects something to be done regardless of who does it. It is therefore not surprising that Bernanke has led the Fed to take on issues that Congress (and the White House) ought to be tackling themselves, like housing (the Fed’s purchases of mortgage-backed securities to boost home sales) and economic growth (the fiscal cliff and the Fed’s loose monetary policies).

Early in the financial crisis, a more proactive Congress had the consensus to take action. However, as political considerations ground the legislative process to a halt, Bernanke, focused on the problem, refused the status quo. Now that the November election has assured everyone that Capitol Hill will do nothing of substance or importance,  few are surprised on the announcement of QE3. Not only does the LTA explain Bernanke’s preference for the easing measures, but upward shifts in his control over events, need for power, and self confidence scores underscores his increased likeliness to act despite his respect for constraints.

Wrapping Up

The LTA profile of Ben Bernanke suggests that he has a natural tendency to act with restraint, especially in public, but with a drive to find solutions even if it requires stretching boundaries. His low need for power and average perception of controlling events, however, will moderate the extent to which he will push constraints, so long as he perceives other important actors are also working towards a solution. The difference in scores between extemporaneous and prepared speech suggests he is smartly attuned to political considerations and therefore we must not assume he is absent from the political gamesmanship of financial and monetary policy.

I would like to thank Dr. Hermann and Hanneke Derksen, Phd candidate at The Maxwell School, for their help in providing information and feedback.

Full citation: Hermann, Margaret G. “Assessing Leadership Style: A Trait Analysis.” November, 1999. Revision, 2002. Copyright by Social Science Automation, Inc. Retrieved from:

2 Responses to “A Psychological Profile of Ben Bernanke”

Darren BolteFebruary 14th, 2013 at 8:12 am

By reading this input, I came to know a bit sound about theory and methodology of psychologically profiling political leaders. Anyway, I impress to read such kind of analytical content as it is efficient for global policy. Looking forward to know more!

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