Can Psychopathic Personality Traits Predict Successful Presidents?

Could psychopathic personality traits be a sign of a good leader?

Posted Sep 16, 2012

Although the psychopathy diagnosis has never been included in any commonly accepted classification system for mental disorders (including the DSM), the very word psychopath is often linked to criminal violence and antisocial behaviour.   Ever since Hervey Cleckley first introduced the concept of psychopaths in his 1941 book, The Mask of Sanity, he argued that they could be identified by sixteen core characteristics.   Many of these characteristics (including glibness/superficial charm,  insincerity, lack of remorse or shame, unreliability, and shallow emotional responding) were later incorporated by Robert Hare into his own Psychopathy Checklist (PCL-R).  

Numerous studies have supported the validity of Hare's checklist (which is still the most widely used psychopathy measure available) and researchers largely agree that psychopathy has two broad dimensions.  The first dimension (Factor 1) reflects traits such as glibness, lack of guilt, narcissism, and emotional responding while the second dimension (Factor 2) focuses on the antisocial lifetsyle usually associated with "classic" psychopaths (and the DSM diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder).  

But is psychopathy something only seen in career criminals?   While studies have found high PCL scores to be good predictors of criminal behaviour and violent recidivism in prison inmates, psychopathic traits have also been identified in less obvious settings such as cheating in college students and manipulative behaviour seen in business settings (Babiak and Hare's "snakes in suits"). 

Psychopathic personality traits are not always negative however.  Hervey Cleckley pointed out that numerous people with strong psychopathic personalities have an  "outward appearance [that] may include business or professional careers that continue in a sense successful, and which are truly successful when measured by financial reward or even by the casual observer's opinion of real accomplishment”.   Many personality traits associated with psychopathy traits have also been linked to success in business, politics, and even professional sports.  As D.T. Lykken stated in a 1982 Psychology Today article, psychopaths and heroes are often "twigs of the same branch" since the fearlessness seen in psychopaths can motivate heroic behaviours as well. 

In his own research into psychopathic personality traits, Scott Lilienfeld and Brian Andrews developed a self-report measure of psychopathic personality, the Psychopathic Personality Inventory (PPI).   Factor analysis of PPI data in non-prison samples have identified two new personality dimensions linked to psychopathic personality traits:  Fearless Dominance (FD)  with traits such as fearlessness, social dominance, charm, and immunity to anxiety and Impulsive Antisociality (IA) which includes poor impulse control, rebelliousness and tendency to externalize blame.  While IA has been linked to psychological maladjustment, the Fearless Dominance dimension appears to contain many of the traits that have been found in "successful psychopaths" who have excelled in business and other fields requiring exceptional interpersonal skills.

That includes the characteristics linked to being a good leader, whether in business or politics.   As D.T. Lykken later pointed out,  both U.S. President Lyndon Baines Johnson and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill showed many personality traits associated with psychopathy and that they started out as "daring, adventurous, and unconventional youngsters who began playing by their own rules” before later becoming respected politicians.

 But how can psychopathic personality traits be measured in politicians?   In an ambitious research study recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Scott Lilienfeld and his fellow authors examined psychopathic personalty traits using a remarkable study sample:  the past 42 presidents of the United States (up to and including George W. Bush).   Since his presidential record is still incomplete, Barack Obama was not included in the study.  While none of the presidents in the sample were directly interviewed or assessed for the study, the extensive public record available for each president was used to make the clinical judgments on which the study was based.

With 121 expert raters recruited by Steven Rubenzer and Thomas Faschingbauer for their 2004 research study, Personality, Character, and Leadership In The White House: Psychologists Assess the Presidents,  the past presidents were rated on different clinical measures including the revised NEO Personality Inventory (NEO PI-R) and several five-factor model scales for psychopathy traits such as fearless dominance, impulsive antisociality, and need for power.  Presidents were also rated on a prototype measure of psychopathy and different DSM-IV-TR personality disorders. 

Presidential performance was measured using several widescale surveys by presidential historians rating presidents on ten different dimensions (i.e., job performance, handling of crises, administrative skills, international relations).    More subjective factors such as presidential character and presidential greatness were estimated by looking at historical evidence of negative behaviour (abusing presidential power, extramarital affairs, frequent absenteeism not linked to medical reasons, etc).   All 42 previous presidents were rated using a 596-item questionnaire covering the president's time in office as well as the five years immediately before assuming office.  Where possible, the normative sample for validating the NEO PI-R and other psychopathy instruments was used as a control group.

According to the study results, presidents scored significantly higher on Fearless Dominance compared to the general population.  For more maladaptive traits such as Impulsive Antisociality, there was no significant difference between presidents and the general population.  Looking at overall president performance ratings, Fearless Dominance was the only psychopathy trait significantly associated wth presidential success.  This includes both domestic and international ratings of presidential performance as well as long-term positive legacy.   Fearless Dominance was not associated with moral authority or foreign policy leadership

For negative aspects of presidential performance, i.e., Congressional impeachment resolutions, tolerating misconduct in subordinates or history of misconduct, psychopathy traits such as Impulsive Antisociality were signficantly associated.  Despite careful corrections to rule out political and personal biases on the part of the raters, the overall trends held up fairly well.

There were few surprises in terms of overall level of Fearless Dominanc ior individual presidents with Theodore Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Franklin Roosevelt having the highest estimated scores (Calvin Coolidge, John Quincy Adams and William Taft had the lowest). 

Based on these findings, Lilienfeld and his colleagues concluded that Fearless Dominance tended to be a strong predictor of presidential success as far as domestic leadership and crisis management are concerned (although many revered presidents such as Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson actualy fell in the middle range).  For other traits traditionally associated with psychopathy, only Impulsive Antisociality seems to be linked to poorer outcome measures.  

Although the researchers warn about potential limitations to their study, especally about how well these findings can be generalized to other kinds of leadership positions, they point out that traditonal views about psychopathy often overlook positive aspects such as Fearless Dominance.   Whether psychopathic personality traits can lead to a life of crime or worldly success may well depend more on luck, family influence or the choices we make in life than most people are prepared to admit. 


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