By Mark Prigg
PUBLISHED: 04:25 EST, 12 September 2012 | UPDATED: 09:34 EST, 12 September 2012
A character trait in psychopaths has been identified by scientists as a common thread in successful US presidents.
Fearless dominance, which is linked to less social and physical apprehensiveness, boosts leadership, persuasiveness, crisis management and congressional relations, according to new research.
Theodore Roosevelt, regarded as one of the most influential US leaders even though he was in office more than a hundred years ago, ranked highest for this type of personality followed by John F Kennedy, Franklin D Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.
Then came Rutherford Hayes, Zachary Taylor, Bill Clinton, Martin Van Buren, Andrew Jackson and George W Bush.
Fearless and dominant people are often a paradoxical mix of charm and nastiness. Cool and calm under pressure, they not easily rattled.
They lack the same kind of anticipatory anxiety that most people have so are not put off from taking dangerous actions.
They are usually intelligent and wealthy, relishing directing other people’s activities and basking in their admiration.
Psychologist Professor Scott Lilienfeld, of Emory University, Atlanta, said: ‘Certain psychopathic traits may be like a double edged sword.
‘Fearless dominance, for example, may contribute to reckless criminality and violence, or to skillful leadership in the face of a crisis.’
They are sexually adventurous and often takes risks.
It’s not that they can’t feel fear or anxiety, but it takes a much more extreme situation to elicit those emotions.
They live for the thrill, the excitement and the adrenaline rush and are attracted to jobs such as a fireman or policeman.
If you were assembling a Special Forces team, you would want to screen for people high in fearless dominance.
The analysis, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, drew upon personality assessments of 42 presidents up to George W Bush and compiled by Steven Rubenzer and Thomas Faschingbauer for their book ‘Personality, Character and Leadership in the White House.’
More than a hundred experts including biographers, journalists and scholars who are established authorities on one or more US presidents evaluated their target presidents using standardised psychological measures of personality, intelligence and behaviour.
For rankings on various aspects of job performance, the analysis relied primarily on data from two large surveys of presidential historians.
The rich historical data on presidents, combined with detailed expert rankings, provided a window into an emerging theory some aspects of psychopathy may actually be positive adaptations in certain social situations.
Prof Lilienfeld said: ‘The way many people think about mental illness is too cut-and-dried.
‘Certainly, full-blown psychopathy is maladaptive and undesirable.
‘But what makes the psychopathic personality so interesting is that it is not defined by a single trait, but a constellation of traits.’
A clinical psychopath encompasses myriad characteristics, such as fearless social dominance, self-centered impulsivity, superficial charm, guiltlessness, callousness, dishonesty and immunity to anxiety.
Each of these traits lies along a continuum, and all individuals may exhibit one of more of these traits to some degree.
Prof Lilienfeld explained: ‘You can think of it like height and weight. Everyone has some degree of both, and they are continuously distributed in the population.’
The results of the analysis raise the possibility that the boldness often associated with psychopathy may confer advantages over a variety of occupations involving power and prestige, from politics to business, law, athletics and the military.
The findings also add to the debate over the idea of the so-called ‘successful psychopath,’ an individual with psychopathic traits who rises to a position of power in the workplace.
Prof Lilienfeld said: ‘We believe more research is needed into the implications of boldness for leadership in general.’
The analysis found the link between fearless dominance and political performance was linear but Prof Lilienfeld added that at the extremes, boldness may veer into a form of recklessness that would be detrimental.
The researchers also looked at presidential scores for self-centered impulsivity, which in contrast to boldness, was linked to some negative job performance indicators, including Congressional impeachment resolutions, tolerating unethical behaviour in subordinates and negative character.
Theodore Roosevelt, for instance, ranked the highest for fearless dominance, but lower than average for self-centered impulsivity, suggesting that he was far from being psychopathic.
Lyndon Johnson, however, ranked relatively high for fearless dominance (15th) and was among the top-five scorers for self-centered impulsivity.
Prof Lilienfeld said: ‘That is consistent with what we know about Johnson. He was a very dominant, socially bold person, at times even ruthless about getting his way.
‘In some sense, these traits may have made him an effective leader, able to push through civil rights legislation, but they may not have been so positive in terms of personal relationships.’
Psychopathy is defined as a lack of empathy for others, or a conscience, and can be associated with extreme and manipulative behaviour.
This is distinct from psychosis, a group of mental illnesses, including schizophrenia.