November 1st, 2012

A presidential psychopath?

Research has suggested politicians, especially U.S. presidents, are narcissists. But are they psychopaths too?

Successful ones share a boldness associated with psychopathy, according to a new study led by Emory University clinical/personality psychologist Scott O. Lilienfeld, Ph.D. The study, comparing 42 U.S. presidents up to and including George W. Bush, was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. President Barack Obama was not included because his personality data was unavailable. William Henry Harrison and James Garfield were excluded because of their brief presidencies.

Presidents ranking highest in what Lilienfeld calls “fearless dominance” – the ability to control others without fearing the outcome – rated best for their Oval Office job performance, leadership, persuasiveness, crisis management and Congressional relations. Highest scoring presidents were Theodore Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, Rutherford Hayes, Zachary Taylor, Bill Clinton, Martin Van Buren, Andrew Jackson and George W. Bush.

Psychopathy, generally understood as a lack of regret for actions involving hurting others, is often associated with criminal behavior. But a growing body of research has linked psychopathic traits to success in politics and business. Some individuals considered poor team players score high for superior communication skills, creativity and strategic thinking.

“I think this is mostly irrelevant and not all that useful,” says Stanley Renshon, Ph.D., political psychologist and professor at the City University of New York, of Lilienfeld’s study. Renshon’s academic interest is the nature of high office leadership and why people seek political power. His most recent book “Barack Obama and the Politics of Redemption” was published in August and analyzes Obama’s ideas of his own greatness and goals of transforming the nation.

Renshon says leadership involves “healthy narcissism” and that means boldness. “People who get to the presidency are bold in getting there. This could come under the department of ‘duh’,” he says.

Fearless dominance is not considered part of psychopathy’s definition, adds Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

“To be a bold leader doesn’t mean that you’re not thinking about the consequences of your behavior,’ Krauss Whitbourne says. “So when FDR responding to the attack on Pearl Harbor decided to go to war, does anybody really think he wasn’t concerned about taking that action?”

Lilienfeld relied on a data set of personality items obtained from biographers and experts recruited by Steven Rubenzer and Thomas R. Faschingbauer for their 2004 book “Personality, Character, and Leadership in the White House.” Researchers also used a 2009 C-SPAN poll of 62 identified presidential historians and a 2010 Siena College survey of 238 anonymous ones. Other historical measures included whether the president was assassinated.

The ratings came from historians who knew they were evaluating presidents. Lilienfeld concedes a blind study would have been a better research design.

“The items asked were extremely detailed and required extensive knowledge of each president,” Lilienfeld explains via email, “so it’s extremely likely that outside observers… could have performed the readings with reasonable accuracy.”

Krauss Whitbourne says labeling some presidents as psychopaths is like calling them introverts: “They might like to work on things by themselves. They may function better when they have time to think on their own but that doesn’t mean that they don’t like people.”

People who run for office may share a competitive trait, but Krauss Whitbourne says it is probably balanced by non-psychopathic characteristics.

“Except for Nixon,” she adds. “He was the poster child for fearless dominance.”

The White House releases the president’s annual physical, including his weight, blood pressure, cholesterol, and even his colonoscopy report. Never are there any mental health fitness details. That screening is ultimately left up to voters.

By Janine Weisman

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