Want an antidote to chaos in the world? Maybe Barack Obama has the answer

    Around the same time that Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage detonated a political bomb under the UK before immediately running away, I learned that psychologists at the University of Texas had devised a scale to measure the personality trait they call “the need for drama”, or NFD. (It asks if you agree with statements such as, “Sometimes it’s fun to get people riled up” and, “I always speak my mind but pay for it later.”) There’s little doubt that Johnson and Farage – like Donald Trump – are high-NFD individuals, similar in this respect to that friend who advertises his relationship status on Facebook as “It’s complicated”, or whose answer to the question, “How are things?” always involves multiple interconnected crises. Such people sow chaos to fulfil some inner appetite for the excitement it brings, albeit usually with less destructive consequences than Brexit.

    It’s not just the politicians, either: it’s hard to escape the conclusion that we live in an increasingly high-NFD culture. If more and more voters seem to be choosing disruption or demagogues for the fun of it, maybe that’s because causing drama is the last option open to those who feel powerless. As the psychology writer Melissa Dahl explained on the Science of Us blog, high-NFD people have an “external locus of control”, meaning that they perceive events as happening to them, rather than being authored by them – a reasonable conclusion when events seem largely determined by politicians miles away, or economic shocks half a world away. “Listening to Trump tell you that he is going to build a wall or to a Brexit leader telling you there will be no more immigration is like buying a lottery ticket,” Fintan O’Toole wrote recently. “You don’t have to actually believe that you are going to win $100m… It keeps the boredom at bay by introducing a fantastic possibility.”

    A new study from King’s College London and the University of Limerick suggests he’s right: participants who were made to feel deeply bored, by being forced to transcribe various tedious facts about concrete-mixing, later characterised their politics as more extreme. When modern life feels dull and disempowering to millions, don’t be surprised when they opt to stir things up.

    With the need for drama reaching epidemic levels among both politicians and voters, it’s all the more striking to be reminded that the world’s most powerful leader – for a few more months, at least – is an example of the exact opposite tendency. According to a New York Times profile, the man his aides nicknamed “no-drama Obama” has grown increasingly fond of the quiet late-night hours he spends reading alone in the Oval Office, drinking nothing more dramatic than water, and snacking – in a bizarrely precise detail – on “seven lightly salted almonds”. The crazier the world gets, the more the introverted president seeks calm. His world has quite enough drama, apparently, without his creating more. More and more, reading the news headlines, I think I know how he feels.

    oliver.burkeman@theguardian.com

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