Psychologist Lilienfeld: Presidents and Psychopathy

Sep. 14, 2012

Scott LilienfeldAccording to a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, better job performance among U.S. presidents may the result of certain psychopathic traits, regardless of party affiliation. Lead author on the study was Scott Lilienfeld, Emory professor of psychology.

The research was described in a recent article in

The study, 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 presidential success: fearless dominance.

“An easy way to think about it is as a combination of physical and social fearlessness,” said Lilienfeld. “People high in boldness don’t have a lot of apprehension about either physical or social things that would scare the rest of us. . . . It’s often a kind of resilience because you don’t show lot of anxiety or frustration in the face of everyday life challenges.”

The study noted that American presidents are not prone to full-blown psychopathy and didn’t rate high in all categories of psychopathic traits. But overall, the researchers reported that “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”

According to Lilienfeld, presidents “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). The presidents who topped the chart for fearless dominance were Teddy Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, with FDR, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton close behind. George W. Bush came in 10th on this measure.

“Probably the biggest determinant of presidential success is luck,” added Lilienfeld, though one of the surveys included in the study suggests that fearless types can influence their own luck.

To read the entire article, click here.

—Steve Frandzel

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