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Psychopathic Boldness Tied to Presidential Success?

Psychopathic Boldness Tied to Presidential Success?It’s not a phrase normally associated with the president of the United States, but “fearless dominance associated with psychopathy” could be an important predictor of how well a president performs, according to new research.

“Certain psychopathic traits may be like a double-edged sword,” said lead author Dr.  Scott Lilienfeld, a psychologist at Emory University. “Fearless dominance, for example, may contribute to reckless criminality and violence, or to skillful leadership in the face of a crisis.”

In fact, he noted that fearless dominance, linked to low social and physical apprehensiveness, correlates with better-rated presidential performance for leadership, persuasiveness, crisis management and Congressional relations.

The analysis drew upon personality assessments of 42 presidents, up to George W. Bush, compiled by Steven Rubenzer and Thomas Faschingbauer for their book “Personality, Character and Leadership in the White House.” More than 100 experts, including biographers, journalists and scholars who are established authorities on one or more U.S. presidents, evaluated their target presidents using standardized psychological measures of personality, intelligence and behavior.

The analysis found that Theodore Roosevelt ranked highest in fearless dominance, followed by John F. Kennedy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, Rutherford Hayes, Zachary Taylor, Bill Clinton, Martin Van Buren, Andrew Jackson and George W. Bush.

For rankings on various aspects of job performance, the analysis relied primarily on data from two large surveys of presidential historians: One conducted by C-SPAN in 2009 and a second conducted by Siena College in 2010.

The latest research contributes to an emerging theory that some aspects of psychopathy may actually be positive adaptations in certain social situations, according to the researchers.

A clinical psychopath encompasses myriad characteristics, such as fearless social dominance, self-centered impulsivity, superficial charm, guiltlessness, callousness, dishonesty and immunity to anxiety. Each of these traits lies along a continuum, and all individuals may exhibit one of more of these traits to some degree, Lilienfeld said.

“You can think of it like height and weight,” he explained. “Everyone has some degree of both, and they’re continuously distributed in the population.”

The analysis raises the possibility that the boldness often associated with psychopathy may bring advantages to a variety of occupations involving power and prestige, from politics to business, law, athletics and the military.

The findings also add to the debate over the idea of the so-called “successful psychopath,” an individual with psychopathic traits who rises to a position of power in the workplace, the researchers said.

“The way many people think about mental illness is too cut-and-dried,” Lilienfeld said. “Certainly, full-blown psychopathy is maladaptive and undesirable. But what makes the psychopathic personality so interesting is that it’s not defined by a single trait, but a constellation of traits.”

“We believe more research is needed into the implications of boldness for leadership in general,” Lilienfeld says.

The researchers also looked at presidential scores for self-centered impulsivity, which was linked to some negative job performance indicators, including Congressional impeachment resolutions, tolerating unethical behavior in subordinates, and negative character.

Theodore Roosevelt ranked the highest for fearless dominance, but lower than average for self-centered impulsivity, suggesting that he was far from being psychopathic, the researcher notes.

Lyndon Johnson, however, ranked relatively high for fearless dominance (15th) and was among the top five for self-centered impulsivity. “That’s consistent with what we know about Johnson,” Lilienfeld said. “He was a very dominant, socially bold person, at times even ruthless about getting his way. In some sense, these traits may have made him an effective leader, able to push through civil rights legislation, but they may not have been so positive in terms of personal relationships.”

The analysis was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Source: Emory University

Psychopathic Boldness Tied to Presidential Success?

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2018). Psychopathic Boldness Tied to Presidential Success?. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 11 Sep 2012)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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