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Dr. Scott Lilienfeld, Emory University – Boldness and Presidential Success

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Scott Lilienfeld of Emory University reveals the traits shared by psychopathic individuals and successful U.S. presidents.

Scott Lilienfeld is a professor of psychology at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. His research is focused on the causes and assessment of personality disorders (especially psychopathic personality) and personality traits. He earned his Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota.

About Dr. Lilienfeld

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Dr. Scott Lilienfeld – Boldness and Presidential Success

Psychopathic personality, also known as psychopathy, is a condition marked by a constellation of features, most notably superficial charm, dishonesty, lack of guilt, callousness, risk-taking, and poor impulse control.  Traditionally, psychologists have studied psychopathy in prisons– that’s largely because psychopaths are at heightened risk for criminal behavior and other irresponsible actions. 

In the past decade or so, however, several researchers have become interested in the controversial hypothesis that certain features of psychopathy, especially those associated with boldness and fearlessness, may be tied to adaptive behaviors.  In a recent article published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, my collaborators and I examined this possibility in the 42 U.S. presidents up to and including George W. Bush.  We asked expert biographers on each president to rate their target president on well-established personality measures, from which we extracted estimates of psychopathic features, including fearless dominance, a grouping of traits that comprises physical and interpersonal boldness. 

We found that fearless dominance predicted somewhat better presidential performance in several surveys of independent historians, as well as superior crisis management, leadership, agenda-setting, and persuasiveness.  In contrast, psychopathic personality traits linked to impulse control deficits were either unrelated or related negatively to presidential performance. The highest fearless dominance scorer in our sample, incidentally, was Theodore Roosevelt, the lowest his successor, William Howard Taft.  We also found that although presidents are not more psychopathic overall than are individuals in the general population, they appear to be moderately elevated in fearless dominance.

Our findings do not imply that psychopathic traits in general are linked to presidential success, nor that presidents are especially psychopathic.  But they do raise the intriguing possibility that one specific set of traits associated with psychopathy, namely those tied to boldness, predict success in political leadership and perhaps other domains.


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