Everybody's been rethinking psychopaths lately. Instead of thinking of psychopathy as a highly problematic and socially dangerous personality disorder, psychologists are increasingly coming to see it as an extremely complex set of characteristics that play an important role in human diversity and experience. And in fact, as a recent study from Emory University suggests, psychopathic traits like fearless dominance can be a significant predictor of success — even among U.S. presidents.
There's no question that psychopathy can be an extremely problematic condition. Maladaptive traits like poor impulse control, lack of guilt, and an inability to empathize can result in dangerous and reckless behaviors. At the same time, however, traits like fearlessness, lack of anxiety, and interpersonal dominance can play a beneficial role in certain occupations, especially leadership positions.
And not all psychopaths are criminals or socially dangerous — and not by a longshot. And as the new Emory study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology indicates, some of the most successful U.S. presidents did in fact exhibit these exact traits. Indeed, as the study suggests, psychopath-like characteristics, especially fearless dominance, are linked to low social and physical apprehensiveness — personality traits that have been correlated with better-rated presidents in terms of their leadership skills, persuasiveness, crisis management and Congressional relations.
Writing in PsychCentral, Janice Wood explains further:
The analysis drew upon personality assessments of 42 presidents, up to George W. Bush, compiled by Steven Rubenzer and Thomas Faschingbauer for their book "Personality, Character and Leadership in the White House." More than 100 experts, including biographers, journalists and scholars who are established authorities on one or more U.S. presidents, evaluated their target presidents using standardized psychological measures of personality, intelligence and behavior.
The analysis found that Theodore Roosevelt ranked highest in fearless dominance, followed by John F. Kennedy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, Rutherford Hayes, Zachary Taylor, Bill Clinton, Martin Van Buren, Andrew Jackson and George W. Bush.
For rankings on various aspects of job performance, the analysis relied primarily on data from two large surveys of presidential historians: One conducted by C-SPAN in 2009 and a second conducted by Siena College in 2010.
It's important to note that psychopathy, like autism, manifests along a spectrum. Just because these presidents are listed in the study doesn't imply that they were psychopaths in the traditional (or now archaic) sense of the term. All it suggests is that, at the very least, they had personality traits consistent with someone on the psychopathy spectrum.
Moreover, the study furthers the notion that there can be "successful psychopaths" in society, and that the condition may confer particular advantages at the workplace.
You can read more over at PsychCentral. And be sure to read the entire study.
Images via JFK Museum and US Library of Congress.