A Psychopathic Trait of Presidents

Psychopathic trait fearless dominance common among many effective US presidents

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

It's easy to get caught up in name-calling when it comes to U.S. presidents. But perhaps having something in common with a psychopath isn't such a bad thing for some presidents.

In fact, one of the signature traits of psychopaths also appears to be a signature trait of some of the most successful presidents in U.S. history — a trait called "fearless dominance."

The idea that psychopaths have some powerful characteristics — powerful enough to elevate them to positions of actual power — is not new, and there has been a smattering of research into it.

British journalist Jon Ronson, for example, discovered last year in his research for a book on psychopathy that 4 percent of CEOs qualify as psychopaths, compared to just one percent in the general population.

But could any of the "leaders of the Free World" be a psychopath?

All evidence so far says no because no president displays enough of the major characteristics of psychopathy, but an important psychopathic characteristic did show up in some of the most effective presidents, according to a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The study, conducted by Emory University psychologist Scott Lilienfield, PhD, and his colleagues, looked at what traits, if any, might show up more often among presidents and whether these were linked to their performance.

His team recruited 121 American biographers, journalists and scholars who have specific expertise about one or more presidents.

They rated the presidents, from George Washington through George W. Bush, in terms of their personality, intelligence and behavior using standardized psychological assessment tools. (Not enough information was available for current president Barack Obama.)

"Fearless Dominance" Reigns

The researchers found that "fearless dominance, which reflects the boldness associated with psychopathy, was associated with better rated presidential performance, leadership, persuasiveness, crisis management, Congressional relations, and allied variables; it was also associated with several largely or entirely objective indicators of presidential performance, such as initiating new projects and being viewed as a world figure."

But fearless dominance, which was not associated with any measures of unethical behavior among the presidents, was the only trait to show up consistently among presidents and to appear linked directly to job performance ratings.

Many of the other hallmarks of psychopaths — such as impulsive anti-social behavior, dishonesty, callousness, inability to feel anxious, superficial charm and lack of a conscience or guilt —generally showed up little or not at all.

In fact, the one who topped the list for fearless dominance, Theodore Roosevelt, had one of the lowest ratings for "anti-social behavior," another strong characteristic of psychopaths.

One of the only other psychopathic traits besides fearless dominance that did show up among presidents was actually associated with poorer job performance.

Whenever the trait of self-centered impulsivity was found among presidents, it was usually linked to negative job performance and negative Presidential character.

Those who exhibited this trait were more likely to tolerate unethical behavior in their subordinates and to be involved in Congressional impeachment resolutions.

Defining "Effectiveness" as a President

To determine these associations between psychopathic traits and performance, the researchers compared the assessments with two different survey related to presidential performance, a 2009 C-SPAN poll and a 2010 Siena College Survey.

The ten performance indicators used in the 2009 C-SPAN poll included overall performance, public persuasiveness, crisis management, moral authority, economic management, international relations, agenda setting, administrative skill, pursuit of equal justice and Congressional relations.

The indicators measured in the 2010 Siena College Survey included overall ranking, overall ability, leadership ability, party leadership, integrity, executive ability, communication ability, domestic accomplishments, foreign policy accomplishments, handling of economy, relationship with Congress, willingness to take risks and avoiding crucial mistakes.

So what exactly does this mean? Well, just because a person displays a single trait that's common among psychopaths doesn't mean they are psychopathic. And not every trait that contributes to the overall mosaic of a psychopath is necessarily a bad thing.

In fact, some psychopathic traits may be assets.

"These findings indicate that the boldness associated with psychopathy is an important but heretofore neglected predictor of presidential performance, and suggest that certain features of psychopathy are tied to successful interpersonal behavior," the authors wrote.

They included plenty of limitations to their study, but it's still interesting to see a bit about who came out on top of the "fearless dominance" list.

1. Theodore Roosevelt

Teddy, also known as "The Lion," "The Dynamo of Power" and "The Driving Force" coined the term "bully pulpit" and spoke the famous lines, "Speak softly and carry a big stick." One major legacy of his fearless dominance was his reputation as a "trust-buster," breaking up monopolies on business in the oil and railroad industries. As a member of the Rough Riders, he fought in the Spanish-American War, but he was also known for his environmentalism and set up the first national wildlife refuge.

2. John F. Kennedy

Though his administration was cut short, no would doubt Kennedy was a strong personality in the office. His accomplishments included creating the Peace Corps and passing the Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty, but his fearless dominance was perhaps most on display in handling the Cuban Missile Crisis, widely considered the closest the U.S. has ever come to nuclear war. Of course, he also was the first president to state unequivocally that the U.S. would be the first nation to put a man on the moon. Although he never saw Neil Armstrong take his first step, Kennedy's dream did become a reality.

3. Franklin D. Roosevelt

As the only president to serve four terms, it's difficult to summarize everything FDR accomplished in one paragraph. His leadership during World War II and his relationship with Winston Churchill surely benefitted from his fearless dominance. But that trait likely aided him in passing some of the most far-reaching social programs in U.S. history, collectively known as the New Deal. He didn't always get his way — his attempts to pack the Supreme Court backfired a bit — but he succeeded in creating the minimum way, the Securities and Exchange Commission and Social Security.

4. Ronald Reagan

"The Gipper" and the "Great Communicator," Ronald Reagan and his dynamic personality defined the character of America during the 1980s. By many historians' account, Reagan "redefined" the GOP party and simultaneously instituted deregulation across a range of industries. He greatly expanded the Head Start program for children and is credited with playing a part in the ending of the Cold War, but two other events of his presidency perhaps better reveal his fearless dominance. One was the ending of the nationwide Air Traffic Control Strike and the other was proposing the Strategic Defense Initiative to protect the U.S. from nuclear ballistic missiles, a plan derided by many skeptics but which was nonetheless bold and ambitious.

5. Rutherford B. Hayes

The 19th president was elected during one of the closest elections in U.S. history until 2000 — he won by a single electoral vote that took months to determine. Before his election, however, Hayes had already earned a reputation for bravery during combat in the Union Army of the Civil War. Though he pledged to protect the rights of African-Americans in the South in the tempestuous post-Civil War climate, he was also instrumental in ending the military occupation of the South with the Compromise of 1877. That same year, his fearless dominance was on display when he quelled the Great Railroad Strike of 1877.

And the rest...

Following Hayes are, in order, Zachary Taylor, Bill Clinton, Martin Van Buren, Andrew Jackson, George W. Bush, George Washington, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John Tyler, Chester Arthur, Lyndon B. Johnson, Gerald Ford, Benjamin Harrison and James Earl Carter.

After James Carter, the values measuring fearless dominance tend to track the opposite direction, meaning presidents lower on the list did not exhibit as much fearless dominance. Lincoln, who appeared at #24 on the list, was just barely in this range of negative-value for fearless dominance.

So where would Obama fall? The researchers did not have sufficient information to measure Obama's personality or job performance, especially since his current term has not completed yet.

But the question could be thrown back at voters: Who do you think exhibits more of the "fearless dominance" that's apparently so successful in the Oval Office? Barack Obama or Mitt Romney?

Review Date: 
October 20, 2012