Theodore Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan had the four highest rankings on fearless dominance, while George H.W. Bush was the lowest ranked among recent presidents.
Of course, someone who has too much (or too many) of any of the traits linked with psychopathy, from fearless dominance to self-centered impulsivity, emotional detachment and superficial charm, could be a clinical psychopath capable of recklessness, violence or worse. Lilienfeld is careful to draw that distinction. But he and others (Kevin Dutton’s
The Wisdom of Psychopaths
will be released next month) are interested in the link between moderate levels of certain traits and leadership success.
“Certain psychopathic traits may be like a double-edged sword,” Lilienfeld said in an interview posted on Futurity.org, a Web site that features research news from universities. I talked to Lilienfeld about his findings, and below is an edited excerpt of our discussion.
What is fearless dominance?
It’s a constellation of features that reflects boldness. A bit more specifically, it’s defined by a lack of apprehension regarding social and physical stimuli that would be frightening to most people. Most of us get scared, and many of us are frightened by various social settings. For instance, in our surveys people rank speaking in public ahead of dying. People with this trait have a partial immunity from these fears.
Why did you choose to look at U.S. presidents?
Our primary interest is in the traits that comprise the psychopathic personality, and the somewhat controversial idea that some of these traits could be interpersonally adaptive. Most psychopaths don’t end up doing very well. But there’s long been a lot of speculation and a lot of clinical lore that at least some of the traits could be partly successful in some domains like leadership, politics, business and the military.
Presidents are an interesting group in and of themselves, and can be studied because their successful and unsuccessful behaviors are largely part of historical record—whether they’ve passed a lot of legislation, say, or whether they’ve been impeached. We were able to inherit a data set from two of our coauthors [Steven Rubenzer and Thomas Faschingbauer]. They had collected a wealth of very rich personality data of living biographers by experts on every president.