What does behavioral science and our expertise about lawyers tell us about President and Mrs. Obama, who are both Harvard-educated lawyers?
Assessments. A number of assessment tools give us a profile of what a typical lawyer’s attributes are. Lawyers on average score one or two standard deviations higher on IQ assessments (i.e. 115-130) than the general US population. Using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, lawyers are likely to have the following personality types: "introversion" (need for time alone to think and recharge), "intuition" (greater comfort with concepts than with details), "thinking" (decision-making based on objective reasoning rather than empathic compassion) and "judging" (a work style that methodically charts out and completes goals). According to the Caliper Profile, compared to the general population, lawyers generally have high levels of skepticism and strong abstract reasoning skills, highly prefer autonomy ("I am the boss of me"), exhibit a strong sense of urgency, show low resilience in the face of setbacks (and criticism), and are often uncomfortable and/or unskilled at forming and building relationships ("sociability"). Of the five conflict resolution styles, lawyers tend to use only two: competing ("I want to win") and avoidance, compared to the collaboration that business people often prefer. Lawyers also have on average lower (by one standard deviation) emotional intelligence than the general US population and are much more pessimistic.
Handedness. President Obama, as he recently pointed out when signing his first Executive Order, is a lefty. Mrs. Obama is right-handed.
Humans–while not the only species to exhibit handedness–are and have been for over 5,000 years the only one with a consistent, strongly preferred handedness. Ninety-three percent (93%) of humans are right-handed and a higher proportion of males than females are left-handed.
The left hemisphere of the human brain processes things in parts and sequentially, and is usually the center for language, science, mathematics, and logic. When the left side of the brain is dominant, it controls the right side of the body, making these individuals right-handed. The right side of the brain synthesizes and is a source of dreams, fantasies, art, music, and feeling, and is dominant in left-handed individuals. Almost half of left-handers also use their right hemisphere for language. Lefties are therefore more likely to mix emotion and language, vision and feeling.
Is it better to be left-handed? Research on handedness tends to place the abilities of left-handers at the extremes–over-represented among both the gifted and the mentally challenged. And a number of miscellaneous attributes are reported to be associated with being left-handed, including higher instances of allergies, alcoholism, epilepsy, eczema, thyroid problems, and a shorter life-span by an average of nine years. Also, a significantly higher portion of male lefties than righties are homosexual.
What makes someone left-handed? Premature birth, prolonged labor and breech births seem to correlate with babies who become left-handed. While there is no conclusive explanation for handedness, one theory suggests that the male hormone testosterone might be responsible. Large amounts of this hormone slow left hemisphere development in the male fetus and might explain the clear predominance of males among lefties.
The hormonal theory also seems consistent with differences that have been found in cognitive performance at the intersection of handedness and gender. For example, overall, males perform better than females on spatial tasks (a left hemisphere and therefore right-hand dominant task), while left-handed males perform poorer than right-handed males on those tests (and right-handed women perform poorer than left-handed women). As to verbal abilities (a right hemisphere and therefore left-hand dominant task), left-handed males out perform right-handed males (and, by the way, right-handed females out perform left-handed females). So the picture that emerges is that left-handed males are most like right-handed women in their cognitive approaches.
Analysis of career choices show, as would be expected (and I predicted in a college paper too many years ago to admit to), that a disproportionately high rate of left-handed males, consistent with their superior verbal abilities, are lawyers. Similarly, I surmised (and as to which I can now claim vindication), right-handed women should also be over-represented among lawyers.
Blood Type. Okay, we are starting to get a little far out here, I admit, but several theories contend that blood type relates to specific personality clusters, a result of metabolism and other organic forces that mold leaders, followers, bean-counters, risk-takers. In Japan and other Asian countries, a resume often includes blood type to bolster the applicant’s qualification for the job. In any event, the Obamas’ blood types do not seem to be publicly available and Barack Obama’s mixed racial heritage (as well as some mixed race heritage on Michelle Obama’s side) make assumptions based on race difficult. Nonetheless, people of African ancestry are most often Type O, the original blood type. According to Eat Right for Your Blood Type by Dr. Peter. J. D’Adamo, Type Os tend to be hardy and strong, are best fueled by a high protein diet and need heavy physical exercise. Type Os also have a strong drive to succeed and often exhibit leadership qualities, including a willingness to take risks and, concomitantly, a high degree of optimism. Former president Ronald Reagan, to whom Obama has been compared, was a Type O, as is Queen Elizabeth II and Charles, the Prince of Wales.
Education. Moving on to nurture. Some contend that a lawyer’s law school affects how he/she approaches and resolves issues. Noam Scheiber of The New Republic contrasts the differences between the chaotic early days of Clinton’s presidency with Obama’s smooth and "brutally efficient" transition, concluding that part of the explanation for the difference "lies in the elite institutions that socialized them — namely Yale and Harvard, their respective law schools."
According to Carolyn Elefant in the Legal Blog Watch, "Scheiber contrasts the rigor and competitiveness of Harvard Law School with the somewhat more relaxed environment at Yale. At Yale, class attendance wasn’t required, and professors engaged students in broad policy discussions. By contrast, Harvard classes focused more tightly on legal issues. Likewise, at Yale, the law review conferred little prestige, because anyone could join, whereas at Harvard, law review participation depended upon grades and a writing competition. As a result, Harvard Law review editors like Obama stood a good chance at a coveted Supreme Court clerkship."
Brian Lauter at The Shark goes further to say that it is college that provides "the more formative experience. Personal identity, at least partially formed during the college years, guides the way we approach decisions and situations" — including one’s choice of law school.
Ultimately, Elefant agrees "that our personalities matter much more than where we attend school — undergraduate or law school. Had Bill Clinton attended Harvard, he probably would have chafed against the rules and formalities with his less-disciplined personality, but I doubt that Harvard would have changed him. Likewise, if Obama had gone to Yale, it’s not likely that the relaxed atmosphere would have encouraged him to drop his work ethic."
What’s Different About the Obamas. Of course we have more information about the Obamas than just that they are lawyers, what schools they went to and their handedness. Some of the other information out there can help us piece together a more specific read on their personal work styles.
First, the fact that both Obamas left the traditional law firm track makes them more likely to be exceptions to the average lawyer profile rather than the rule. Lawyers who are high on extroversion, sociability, compassionate decision making, and optimism are often the ones most uncomfortable in law firm culture and the first ones to go.
We might also gain insight into the base attitudes of the Obamas before they were polished for public consumption by looking at their preferences when they were younger. An article in the January 19, 2009 edition of the New Yorker recounts an interview with the Obamas in 1996. Michelle is quoted saying: "I’m pretty private… In politics you’ve got to open yourself to a lot of different people…In many ways, we are here for the ride, just sort of seeing what opportunities open themselves up. And the more you experiment the easier it is to do different things. If I had stayed in a law firm and made partner, my life would be completely different. I wouldn’t know the people I know, and I would be more risk-averse. Barack has helped me loosen up and feel comfortable with taking risks, not doing things the traditional way and sort of testing it out… I’m more traditional; he’s the one in the couple that, I think, is the less traditional individual."
This quote seems to indicate that Michelle Obama’s natural inclination is to be like the typical lawyer in many respects: an introvert, risk-averse, trying to control and stage events in her life, yet with higher sociability and clearly higher optimism. It also implies that she has consciously let go of some of those inclinations in order to be more flexible in following her less-typical lawyer-husband’s lead–which she is optimistic about.
Obama is quoted as saying: "There is a part of [Michelle] that is vulnerable and young and sometimes frightened, and I think seeing both of those things is what attracted me to her. .. I’m extremely happy with her, and part of it has to do with the fact that she is at once completely familiar to me, so that I can be myself and she knows me very well and I trust her completely, but at the same time she is also a complete mystery to me in some ways… It’s that tension between familiarity and mystery that makes for something strong, because, even as you build a life of trust and comfort and mutual support, you retain some sense of surprise or wonder about the other person."
Not only does Obama give the impression that he is more willing to take risks, he also clearly indicates with this language that compared to the typical lawyer profile, he is much less skeptical, has higher sociabilty (comfort and ability in forming and building relationships), higher empathy (a significant component of emotional intelligence and compassionate decision-making), higher resilience, higher optimism, lower defensiveness and not only tolerance of but a clear preference for embracing differences. The decision to make his one-time rival Hillary Clinton a prominent member of his government is another example of this ability to tolerate and embrace differences, one which research shows should produce much better decisions than those built on group-think.
Obama’s oratory style–visionary, emotion-laden and highly literate–also reflects his right hemisphere (left-handed) dominance. And some of the familiarity he feels with his right-handed wife may very well arise from the fact that they cognitively approach issues in a similar fashion.
So what can we say we know about the Obamas’ personal style? As a matter of certainty, very little. But there are numerous hints that bring us closer to understanding how they perceive and impact their world, and what kind of First Lawyers they are likely to be.