No matter how certifiably crazy Washington may seem, we don’t usually like to think of the people running this country as having much in common with actual psychopaths. But in a new paper published in the September 2012 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Emory University professor Scott Lilienfeld found that this country’s most successful leaders may be more like them than we think, at least when it comes to one specific psychological trait. 

Lilienfeld compared the psychological profiles of 42 presidents up through George W. Bush (these had been previously compiled in the book Personality, Character and Leadership in the White House ) with the results of polls of historians that rate presidential performance. He found that on one trait—so-called “fearless dominance”—there was a correlation between presidents who had been rated as particularly successful and those who were particularly bold in their leadership style.

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.

There’s also a huge cottage industry of presidential polls that come out about presidential success, and historians tend to agree on those pretty well—which presidents were more persuasive, better at international relations, better at domestic relations, better at managing crises. We used one from C-SPAN in 2009 and then Siena College had an even bigger one in 2010.

Were you surprised at all by the results?

Broadly they were what we predicted. The main findings in general were that the fearless dominance trait was overall [correlated] to better presidential performance. It makes theoretical sense. But we were also predicting that another set of traits—poor impulse control, or self-centered impulsivity—would predict worse performance. While we found some hint of that, it didn’t seem on average that those with higher impulsive rankings were worse performers. It could be that the kinds of people who are too high on that dimension get self- selected out. Sure, you have to have a massive ego to run for president, but if you’re too much so, if you’re Donald Trump or something, you may get pushed out.

Are biographers, scholars and journalists really able to make psychological analysis? Wouldn’t the study have been better if you’d had profiles by psychologists who’d intimately studied the presidents? I think that’s a limitation, yes. But if I were to have my pick I would still prefer to have non-psychology experts who know each president extremely well versus having psychologists who don’t know the president well judging the person from a distance.  

Should this inform how we pick presidents?

We found statistically significant findings that weren’t trivial, but we’re not talking about huge differences. We’re talking about mostly 3 to 5 percent differences [in their performance] being attributable to their fearless dominance scores. These are not determinative. I do think it could help certain presidents in certain situations, particularly crises.

Doesn’t the population of people with egos big enough to think they could become president already mean the group is self-selected to be high on a trait like boldness or “fearless dominance”?

You’re right, plus all of these people have to have run for some other office initially, then be reelected once or twice, and then get to the point of being nominated for president. It turns out the presidents were somewhat higher on that trait on average than the general population.

What about Obama or Romney? Where would they rate on spectrum for fearless dominance?

Neither of them strike me as particularly high or low. They also both seem to have strong impulse control. I don’t know about you, but I don’t know how they maintain their composure when they’re asked about things by the press.

More from Jena McGregor and On Leadership:

Mitt Romney and ‘the vision thing’

Behind Mitt Romney’s Libya statement

The 2012 Service to America winners

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