Psychopathic Traits: What Successful Presidents Have in Common
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.”