It’s been nine years since Joe Trenzeluk – then a student at Saint John’s University – collaborated with associate professor of psychology Aubrey Immelman on a study of the personality patterns exhibited by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But while much has changed in Trenzeluk’s own life since then, the subject of his research has continued to impact the world stage – never more so than at the current moment.
Under Putin’s direction, Russian troops invaded neighboring Ukraine in February – launching a brutal military campaign that has drawn condemnation from nations around the globe, triggered widespread economic sanctions and led to fears of a widening conflict and its ramifications.
It’s no surprise then that interest in Trenzeluk and Immelman’s work – which was compiled following Russia’s annexation of Crimea (previously a part of Ukraine) in 2014, but was not published until January of 2017 – has skyrocketed.
According to tracking figures from CSB+SJU Digital Commons, the paper has been downloaded almost 4,000 times in the past two months alone – accounting for roughly one-third of its nearly 12,000 total downloads.
“That’s been the really interesting thing to see,” said Trenzeluk, now an associate director of research on a clinical analytics team at Optum Rx and based in Minnetonka, Minnesota. “I’ve graduated, been through a couple of different jobs and I’m getting married next month. But that paper continues to have a lasting impact.”
Immelman – who has been a professor at CSB and SJU since 1991 and has named his faculty-student collaborative research lab the Unit for the Study of Personality in Politics – has long drawn national and international attention for his psychological profiles of U.S. and world leaders – including profiles of both the leading Republican and Democratic candidates for the U.S. presidency in every election cycle since 1996.
His profile of former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il drew the eye of the U.S. Department of Defense, leading to a role as a military consultant. And he has gone on to profile his successor/son Kim Jong-un as well.
For the Putin profile, Immelman and Trenzeluk drew on diagnostic information pertaining to the Russian leader collected from a broad array of media reports.
Using the Millon Inventory of Diagnostic Criteria (MIDC), a psychological assessment tool adapted by Immelman from the model of American psychologist Theodore Millon “which yields 34 normal and maladaptive personality classifications,” the report concluded that:
“Putin’s primary personality patterns were found to be Dominant/controlling (a measure of aggression or hostility), Ambitious/self-serving (a measure of narcissism), and Conscientious/dutiful, with secondary Retiring/reserved (introverted) and Dauntless/adventurous (risk-taking) tendencies and lesser Distrusting/suspicious features. The blend of primary patterns in Putin’s profile constitutes a composite personality type aptly described as an expansionist hostile enforcer.”
“We decided to focus on Putin because he had just annexed Crimea,” Immelman said. “My students and I started collecting data during the spring semester of 2014 and Joe worked with me as a Summer Research Fellow that summer.
“The reason it still applies today is that by definition personality is stable,” he continued. “It doesn’t change much, especially not after middle age. So if you can get a good read of a person’s personality, it can help you map out their behavior in the future.”
In the run-up to the invasion of Ukraine, many speculated on Putin’s mental state, wondering if he has grown increasingly delusional during his long tenure in power.
But Immelman does not believe that to be the case.
“My conclusion is that he’s not delusional,” he said. “But rather that he’s driven by a worldview, an ideology, known as ‘Russky Mir’ which means Russian World. He wants to unite the areas of Russian speakers once part of the Russian empire, including Ukraine. He has this ideology that drives him and he can’t let go of it because of the obsessive-compulsive features of his personality.”
The work Immelman did with Trenzeluk represented just a portion of his long history of collaboration with his students dating back to the 2000 U.S. presidential election cycle.
Over that time, he has co-authored more than 100 newspaper op-ed pieces with them in addition to other projects.
“I tell the students I work with that the work they do here will be recognized and read by people around the world,” Immelman said. “It provides them the opportunity to get their names out there.”
As Trenzeluk attests, it also provides a solid base of experience as they prepare for their own professional careers.
“It’s funny because I’m researching very different things now,” Trenzeluk said of his work at OptumRX. “But I’m still dealing with data and information. The work I did with Aubrey really prepared me for this job. It taught me how to critically think, how to pay attention to details and how to see the way those details fit into a larger picture.”