Psychopathic Traits: What Successful Presidents Have in Common

Presidential success is linked with fearless dominance, a psychopathic trait of boldness that can sometimes turn reckless

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Political partisans delight in labeling opposition leaders as malign or even psychopathic — but it turns out that U.S. presidents with high levels of certain psychopathic traits may actually do better on the job, no matter what their party affiliation, according to new research.

The study, which was based on presidential performance ratings and personality assessments by hundreds of historians and biographers in several different surveys, found that one psychopathic characteristic in particular was linked to success in presidency: fearless dominance.

“An easy way to think about it is as a combination of physical and social fearlessness,” says Scott Lilienfeld, lead author of the study and professor of psychology at Emory University. “People high in boldness don’t have a lot of apprehension about either physical or social things that would scare the rest of us.”

He adds, “It’s often a kind of resilience because you don’t show lot of anxiety or frustration in the face of everyday life challenges.” While that sounds like a necessity for dealing with the daily crises that face the White House, from hurricanes to threats from rogue nuclear nations, the same trait in psychopaths is also associated with callousness, indifference to negative consequences and impulsive antisocial behavior.

It’s not to say that American presidents are full-blown psychopaths — they didn’t rate high in all categories of psychopathic traits. Overall, the study found, presidents tended to be more like psychopaths than the general population in their level of fearless dominance, but they didn’t show a psychopathic excess of impulsive antisocial behavior. Although “some might think presidents are extremely psychopathic,” Lilienfeld says, the combination of traits that make them successful can’t all be characterized as such. “They need to be bold and self confident to be willing to run, but they also have to have an amazing capacity to delay gratification and a lot of impulse control, at least in some domains.”

All U.S. presidents from George Washington to George W. Bush were included in the research (there was not yet enough data for President Obama). Researchers had 121 experts use standardized psychological assessment methods to rate the presidents’ personalities, based on their biographical information before they were elected. These evaluations were then compared with ratings of job performance compiled in two surveys of presidential historians: a 2009 C-Span poll of 62 presidential historians and a 2010 Siena College survey of 238 historians.

Topping the chart in fearless dominance were Teddy Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, with FDR, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton not far behind. George W. Bush came in 10th on this measure — Rutherford Hayes, Zachary Taylor, Martin Van Buren and Andrew Jackson were also in the top 10 — illustrating that fearless dominance isn’t always associated with positive decision-making, or success.

Indeed, it’s a double-edged sword: if your boldness allows you to ignore both your own fears and the concerns of others, it can be easy to veer off into recklessness, dismissing important problems that should rightly grab your attention. A recent New York Times op-ed on George W. Bush’s refusal to heed early warnings from the CIA about Osama bin Laden’s planned attacks on America suggests as much.

Of course, circumstance and luck can also play a large role in whether a decision is later seen as courageous or psychopathic — and in whether a presidency is considered a success or a failure. “Probably the biggest determinant of presidential success is luck,” says Lilienfeld. Interestingly, however, at least one of the surveys included in the study suggests that fearless types can influence their own luck: ratings of presidential luck were also linked with individuals’ degree of fearless dominance.

Lilienfeld cautions that his study can’t determine when a president’s fearless dominance crosses the line from confident courage to recklessness: there wasn’t enough data to determine whether extremely high levels of fearless dominance may be counterproductive, though it seems intuitively likely. He also notes that the overall effect of such boldness on performance was small: there are numerous factors that go into the making of a president, and this was only one.

Moreover, bold leadership isn’t just a quality found in psychopaths — or presidents. Everyone falls somewhere along the scale, from timid to bold, from follower to leader. And psychopathic traits like fearless dominance — or others like impulsivity, callousness and dishonesty — also appear in varying degrees in the general population. “I think the evidence increasingly points in the direction that these traits are on a continuum like height and weight: they are things all of us have to some degree. It’s probably not all or none,” Lilienfeld says.  Shadings of potential pathology are found in everyone.

For those who rate high in both the psychopathic traits of boldness and impulsive, antisocial behavior, however, it’s likely that the balance between these two qualities could make the difference between whether they become a violent criminal or a (shady but) wealthy business leader.

“My mentor, David Lykken, argued that psychopaths and heroes are ‘twigs off of the same branch.’ It may be that the fearless dominance or boldness that sometimes gives rise to psychopathy might also sometimes give rise to heroism,” says Lilienfeld.

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

MORE: Making Choices: How Your Brain Decides
Maia Szalavitz is a health writer at TIME.com. Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.

19 comments
BonnieStJulien
BonnieStJulien

I just finished watching season 1 of House of Cards on Netflix with Kevin Spacey. He plays a sociopathic senator. It's a great show, and an example of a successful psychopath, but I don't totally buy into that profile. What great leaders have in common with psychopaths is that they both have great self-confidence and can by very socially skilled. I still believe, however, that the best leaders do have empathy for others, a strong set of morals, and those who do work for the greater good are the most successful. When a person in position of leadership is selfish and exploits power for his/her own purposes instead of the greater good, he/she meets his/her downfall. It's really all about Karma. You can't be an evil peson and fool people forever, because eventually someone will find out. So, I don't really buy into the idea of the successful psychopath except to say that there are some traits leaders & psychopaths have in common but others that are different. The truth is that I think some people resent others who are successful, so they want to believe that those foks must be where they are because they have been dishonest or cheated the system to get where they are. I am more willing to believe that they worked hard, were talented, but then got lucky on top of that. In reality, people without character don't get very far for very long or if they do it is for a fleeting moment until it all falls apart.

Cynthia Rouse
Cynthia Rouse

I think that women want to run for office because they want to do something specific; they have issues they see as so important that they are willing to risk public office or the insults and rigors of a campaign.

I think men run for office because they want to "be somebody" and that is a completely different mindset. I think that anyone who would put a young family through the ugliness of a public campaign, is incredibly selfish, at the very least.

I also find it interesting that many of these men are fatherless, and have no sons. The natural psychological legacy of building something and passing it on; and the inherent legacy that creates, is absent. I think this is a psychological driver for many of them; rather a variation of "how do you like me now."

The world would really benefit from more women in positions of power. I think it would change so very much.

mamaotis
mamaotis

 "...not yet enough data for Obama" ???  I suppose that's why Johnson wasn't mentioned, it might remind us of the similarity of these two presidents whose administrations show a sociopathic drive for continual war. Though I have to say Johnson was the more psychopathic of the two....he was more his own man, albeit twisted with megalomania. Obama, on the other hand, is puppet material owned by the military-industrial complex and the international banking cartel. Funny that the article barely skimmed or left out these matters -- lack of conscience -- lack of empathy for the suffering of others -- proficient liars.

This is a fluff article, demonstrated in part by giving Bush I and Bush II a light slap on the wrist hardly heard in the whir of a candy fluff machine. 

stfusa
stfusa

What can I say....week afer week....a feminist's gripe on men masked as journalism...

h rutner
h rutner

Psychopathic Presidents? Hardly so. megalomaniacs may be a better description for anyone seeking to become the leader of the strongest nation ever. Bythat definition Obama, though deceptively excluded to promote his aspiration to get elected at any cost, clearly qualifies. And luck is a considerable factor failing JFK in the Bay of Pigs disaster, but incredibly successful despite the enormous odds and near catastrophic failure of a risky scheme that was largely avoided by the meticulous 5 year planning of all contingencies by an unnamed female CIA agent to whom all credit should be due.

JeanClellandMorin
JeanClellandMorin

This is the first time I have been tempted to make a joke about column.

Firozali A.Mulla
Firozali A.Mulla

Good advisors near by and good people around to guide the president when he needs them But that is what we do not have now I thank you Firozali A.Mulla DBA

Pickel Green
Pickel Green like.author.displayName 1 Like

If you tied the family dog to the top of your car then you might be a sociopath.

Rumionemore
Rumionemore

We're talking about  a dog. An animal. Disease carriers. Crap in front of you. Screw in front of you. (Well, humans do this, too.) Contrary to popular belief in a country that has so much wealth some of its pets eat better than humans, dogs are not people too.

MajorBummer
MajorBummer

If you think you are going to heal the planet and stop the rise of the oceans you might be delusional.

lurch3
lurch3

If you jumped a boy, held him down and cut off his long hair because it made you feel funny, you may be a sociopath.

Rumionemore
Rumionemore

Yes, this is a really awful thing for a teenaged boy to do 50 years ago. Boys now post humiliating videos online - or kill other boys they don't like. But cutting another boy's hair - mean, mean, mean.

Danyz
Danyz

First of all, I thought that the misleading term psychopath had some time ago been repleaced with the less cineramic sociopath. Second, is not a sociopath a person essentially without a conscience? One that can commit a crime and feel no remorse? So then, applying a basically movie term like psychopath to presidential traits strikes this reader as weak and misleading journalism. 

Robin Ashe
Robin Ashe

It's better for the general population to learn how to use terms correctly than to expect scientists to be constrained to the incorrect interpretations used by the general population.

Daniel Garigan
Daniel Garigan

I agree, and better yet is the capacity to understand why, where, and when expectations develop.  A quick read of Harry Stack Sullivan's work on the Interpersonal Theory of Psychiatry illustrates the conditions to "create" in adolesence, psycopathic personalities (extreme self centeredness cultivated by self preservation); your sociopath is added a good drop of extreme depreciation to cultivate self-hate.  While genetics always is a factor, extremely good intelligence makes your psychopath or sociopath a pretty dangerous, if not successful guy.

Danyz
Danyz like.author.displayName 1 Like

A quick read of Harry's tome, eh? I'll give it a look next time I'm on the throne...

Danyz
Danyz

Actually, I've just been informed that these terms are more or less interchanagable, depending on how one views the origin of this disorder, ie, those who view social factors as the origin as opposed to those who see a genetic and psychological origin. All of this indicates that the term "scientist" is misleading here. We are not talking about people who acellorate atoms and then record verifable results. We are talking about the social sciences, psychology among these, basically a collection of often contradictory theories of the human personality. How does one reconcile, for example, the theories of Carl Rogers and Sigmund Freud?