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Who Are You Calling a Psychopath?

Making the case for fearless dominance in our heroes.

Source: Pressmaster/Shutterstock

Anyone who’s suffered at the deceitful, manipulative hands of a psychopathic individual probably finds it hard to see an upside to this dark personality. Whether you’ve been lied to, cheated by—or worse, harmed or injured by—a remorseless exploiter of your weaknesses, you would undoubtedly be reluctant to see the psychopath as anything but evil. Psychology and psychiatry equate psychopathy with one of the most chilling of the hundreds of possible disorders within the psychiatric nomenclature. However, according to Emory psychologist Scott Lilienfeld, not all psychopaths qualify equally for the dreaded antisocial personality disorder diagnosis.

The standard definition of a psychopath is the one made famous by Robert Hare, and most recently written about in the highly compelling psych-nonfiction hybrid called The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson (summarized here). The key qualities of the psychopath, or person with antisocial personality disorder, include committing acts that harm others (and showing no remorse), being incapable of showing empathy, engaging in impulsive behaviors, being sexually promiscuous, and manipulating others to get his or her own way. Although Ronson shows the human side of psychopaths, particularly in cases in which they were victims of abuse, he makes it clear that you might inadvertently bump into one in some pretty ordinary situations. The psychopath may be the guy behind you in line at the bank, or he may be the guy holding a gun to the cashier’s head.

Not all psychopaths are criminals—or at least not criminals who are caught—but can they also be heroes? Lilienfeld and his colleagues (2012) suggest that an essential component of psychopathy is the quality they call fearless dominance, a tendency toward boldness that includes such traits as a desire to dominate social situations, charm, willingness to take physical risks, and an immunity to feelings of anxiety. Lilienfeld argues that the qualities associated with fearless dominance could be adaptive in situations requiring bold action. The next time you need someone to save you from danger, the person highest in fearless dominance might be the person most likely to rescue you. If we were to conduct a personality analysis of Superman, we might find that his most characteristic trait is fearless dominance.

A bold temperament alone can make someone a hero, but a bold temperament combined with the trait of impulsive aggressiveness becomes the formula for a psychopathic personality, according to Lilienfeld. Using a metric to analyze the personalities of the first 42 U.S. Presidents, Lilienfeld and colleagues (2012) concluded that the ones who were most successful at the job were those high in fearless dominance.

(This finding, unfortunately, was translated into headlines such as “The psychopathic trait successful presidents have in common.” Since the general public would not have access to the actual article supporting this claim, the headline only confirms our worst fears about the evil streaks in our nation’s leaders. We are left with the logical impossibility that the one U.S. President most likely to be seen as self-actualized, Abraham Lincoln, was a cold-blooded criminal. This is not exactly what Lilienfeld and his co-authors meant. However, they stand by their claim that fearless dominance is psychopathy’s healthy dimension.)

The actual statistical analysis on which the presidential-psychopathy link was based was not particularly impressive. For example, raters judging the personalities of presidents obviously could not conduct diagnostic interviews of their subjects. Further, the raters knew they were rating presidents, and therefore were not blind to the purpose of the study. Worse, the raters themselves didn’t show very strong agreement among themselves in deciding whether specific presidents met the criteria for either fearless dominance or impulsive aggressiveness. Even so, the difference between presidents and the average person on fearless dominance were far higher than the corresponding difference on impulsive aggressiveness. Whether or not you agree with Lilienfeld’s methods, the findings clearly don’t justify the conclusion that our most venerable presidents were psychopaths.

What about the idea that fearless dominance is a component of psychopathy? According to Lilienfeld’s critics (Lynam and Miller, 2012), some qualities within the fearless dominance category may be a part of the psychopathy picture. People high in fearless dominance who are not antagonistic or impulsive, or who do not have a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder, should not be labeled “psychopathic.” The researchers argue that psychopaths may show dominance, lack of concern for others, unusual self-assurance, feelings of invulnerability, and smugness, but this doesn’t mean that great leaders, or even average individuals who have fearless dominance, map entirely onto the psychopathic profile. For example, the first man to fly faster than the speed of sound, Chuck Yeager, was fearless. So were the murderers in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. That they share fearlessness does not make them equally psychopathic.

We can conclude, then, that one element of great leadership is the ability to make tough decisions, but for a leader to become a true hero (and not a criminal), that boldness must be tempered with the opposite of psychopathy—concern for others, the ability to anticipate the results of your actions, and remorse or sadness when the results turn out badly. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, President John F. Kennedy had to make a bold decision, but it was not one that he made without exquisite recognition of the potential costs.

In my opinion, it’s not psychopathy that’s the problem with the personality of our leaders. Narcissism is a far more dangerous trait for people in positions of power. Once they enter the narcissistic bubble, politicians, celebrities, and athletes (to name a few) lose their sense of perspective about how their decisions affect millions of ordinary people. Pampered, closeted from the outside world, and surrounded by people saying “yes” to their every whim, even the most grounded people can eventually become immune to the impact of their actions on others.

It’s all too easy to twist the results of any psychological finding to fit a story that will grab headlines. To become an intelligent consumer of psychology, it’s important to judge the validity of the research that produced those headlines, especially if you’re seeking advice about how to improve your own life.

Returning to our original question of whether fearless dominance is the healthy component to psychopathy, we can now reframe the issue: Heroes may indeed be high on fearless dominance, as long as their fear is not of hurting themselves, but of hurting others. The next time you’re in trouble, you should hope that there are at least one or two people nearby with at least some fearless dominance who are willing to step in and save your day, and theirs.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask questions about this post.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2012


Lilienfeld, S. O., Waldman, I. D., Landfield, K., Watts, A. L., Rubenzer, S., and Faschingbauer, T. R. (2012). Fearless Dominance and the U.S. Presidency: Implications of Psychopathic Personality Traits for Successful and Unsuccessful Political Leadership. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, doi:10.1037/a0029392

Lynam, D. R., & Miller, J. D. (2012). Fearless dominance and psychopathy: A response to Lilienfeld et al. Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment, 3(3), 341-353. doi:10.1037/a0028296

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