It’s virtually unheard of for anyone to present before the International Society of Political Psychology (ISPP) unless they already have a doctorate in the field or are deep into their graduate studies. But Abby Goff ’22 and Elise Vomacka ’23 have never been ordinary.
Both majored in psychology at the College of Saint Benedict and likely will pursue grad school. But they found themselves well ahead of the curve recently when they showcased research during the 46th Annual Scientific Meeting of the ISPP, July 9-11 in Montreal. Speaking before an audience with the largest international organization devoted to political psychology, Goff presented a "post-expansionist" personality profile of Russian President Vladimir Putin. And Vomacka poignantly paired that with her similar presentation on the personality profile and leadership style of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. The two men have been at the forefront of world politics since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.
At that time, both women were still on campus, working as research assistants for Aubrey Immelman, an associate professor of psychology who has developed his own international reputation for assessing personality traits in politicians. Immelman, who has presented at the conference many times since coming to Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s University in 1991, this time invited two of his brightest recent students to join him and a counterpart, Christ’l De Landtsheer – a professor of political communication sciences at the University of Antwerp in Belgium, to speak on a panel about the military conflict in Ukraine.
“I was a little starstruck at first,” said Goff, who is from Spokane, Washington. “There were political psychologists who came together there from all over the world, and that made it really exciting. But also it was like, ‘What am I doing here?’”
Immelman, who said Goff was the top student in three of his classes while she was an undergrad, had no problem assuring her – or Vomacka, who worked with him as a research assistant in the summers of 2021 and 2022. They each have co-bylines on the presentation materials that have been uploaded to Digital Commons, a repository used by more than 500 academic institutions, health care centers, public libraries and research centers to showcase scholarly output.
“It was a great opportunity,” said Vomacka, who is from Kandiyohi, Minnesota. “For an undergraduate to be able to co-author a paper like this is exceptional. At the conference, it was exciting and humbling to be able to present in front of an audience full of people with PhDs and master’s degrees. I met professors from Amsterdam and Norway, and I learned about their research passions. I intend to stay engaged in academia and this experience just enriched my appreciation for it.”
Students like Elise and Abby are able to complete research and travel to share their work through support from the Office of Undergraduate Research & Scholars. Through grants and a wide variety of research positions, one in four CSB and SJU students complete research, creative work, or a scholarly project each academic year.
Goff collected psychodiagnostically relevant data regarding her target from biographical sources and media reports and synthesized it into personality profiles using the Millon Inventory of Diagnostic Criteria, developed by Immelman. The research instrument yields 34 normal and maladaptive personality classifications congruent with standard taxonomies of normal personality styles and their pathological variants in clinical science.
The results showed Putin’s primary personality patterns to be dominant/aggressive and ambitious/self-serving (a measure of narcissism), complemented by secondary dauntless/adventurous and retiring/reserved patterns and characterized him as a “dominant expansionist.” Dominant leaders are tough and unsentimental. Ambitious leaders expect others to recognize their special qualities and tend to act as though entitled, according to the research.
At the conclusion of the presentation, a scholar from Russia approached Goff and complimented her performance.
“She said she was surprised that an American produced a research profile that was reflective of how she as a Russian views Putin as a leader,” Goff said. “That was very affirming because I’m very aware that I don’t speak Russian.
“I don’t think I would have done this sort of thing at another school,” she added. “I needed the mentorship that I got from my professors at Saint Ben’s. I don’t know that I would’ve found these research opportunities without the people who encouraged me and gave me the confidence to pursue them. The me that was coming out of high school would’ve never thought I could try.”
Vomacka is no stranger to Immelman’s psychological profiles of political figures, although she didn’t know about them until coming to Saint Ben’s.
“When I learned about Aubrey’s personality profiles, I was fascinated,” Vomacka said. “I approached him after class one day and said I’d love to be involved in his lab and he told me they had a position open. From there, my passion for research grew.
“I think what’s really special about Saint Ben’s is the faculty involvement with the students,” she added. “I like to ask questions, and they were always really responsive to that. I came in after office hours and they made time for me as mentors and people with similar interests.”
This particular profile was her idea. “I went to Aubrey at about the time war broke out and said I wanted to profile Volodymyr Zelenskyy,” Vomacka said. “I was amazed by the courage I saw from Zelenskyy and I thought he would be a really interesting person to profile.”
Vomacka used scholarly sources like ProQuest to search articles for “psychologically relevant extractions.”
“We look for certain keywords that describe personality,” Vomacka said. “We put those into a 170-trait database, and these extractions serve as evidence for or against a person having a particular trait. We try to pursue sources neutral in bias and we don’t use opinion pieces. We require multiple examples of a certain trait in a variety of news reports before we consider the trait to be affirmatively present.”
Zelenskyy’s primary personality patterns were found to be ambitious/confident, outgoing/congenial, dauntless/adventurous, and accommodating/cooperative, complemented by secondary conscientious/respectful and dominant/asserting features. Ambitious leaders are skilled at winning others over to their causes. Outgoing leaders are dramatic attention-getters who thrive on being the center of social events, go out of their way to be popular with others, and have confidence in their social skills and ability to charm and influence others. Dauntless leaders tend to flout tradition, dislike following routine, and sometimes act impulsively. Accommodating leaders tend to be considerate, cordial, and cooperative and are willing to reconcile differences and to concede when necessary. The prominence of the ambitious and outgoing patterns, in concert with the dauntless pattern in his overall personality configuration, suggests a “courageous charismatic” leadership style.
Immelman said both students did an excellent job not only with the presentations but also fielding follow-up questions from an audience that filled a conference room for the occasion.
“I was very impressed,” Immelman said. “Of course, they are both top-flight students, but the school’s reputation is on display in a setting like that and you don’t want someone to just sit there and read a script. They were very engaging and conversational, and I know they worked hard to hone their presentations so they were ready.”
Immelman has aggregated his work and that of his students at the Unit for the Study of Personality in Politics, a website that chronicles the collaborative faculty-student research program at CSB and SJU. He is able to see where the works are downloaded all over the world and in what quantity. Some of the most dedicated followers come from government, military and academic institutions, and intelligence agencies have been known to reference the material, too.
Goff is currently living in Minneapolis, teaching at a French language learning school and also working at a running store. “Regardless of what I do, participating in a conference like that was of tremendous value in preparing me for what comes next,” she said. “I’m planning to go back to grad school, but I’m deciding the finer details right now. I really like Minnesota, and a lot of my friends from Saint Ben’s moved to the Twin Cities. I love it here.”
Vomacka served as an adult behavioral health intern with CentraCare while she was at Saint Ben’s. Her goal is to pursue a PhD in clinical psychology, for which two years of research experience are required for her to apply to a graduate program. Her research at CSB led to her current position, where she conducts psychological assessments at the Minnesota Center for Twin and Family Research.
Abby Goff '22 (left) joined Aubrey Immelman and his colleague, Christ’l De Landtsheer – a professor of political communication sciences at the University of Antwerp in Belgium, and Elise Vomacka '23 for a panel discussion about the war in Ukraine during the ISPP conference, July 9-11 in Montreal.