Of the 42 presidents up to and including George W. Bush, here are the top 10 according to a study by Lilienfeld et al. (2012):
- Theodore Roosevelt (1.462)
- John F. Kennedy (1.408)
- Franklin D. Roosevelt (1.079)
- Ronald Reagan (.912)
- Rutherford B. Hayes (.824)
- Zachary Taylor (.671)
- Bill Clinton (.569)
- Martin Van Buren (.554)
- Andrew Jackson (.516)
- George W. Bush (.391)
The higher the scores in brackets, the higher their psychopathic tendencies.
And there you have it: Roosevelt by a short head over JFK.
Actually, I have cheated slightly. These ratings are actually for one aspect of psychopathy called ‘fearless dominance’. This is (sort of) the useful part of being a bit of a psychopath. This is the part related to having no fear, to being charming, bold and taking charge.
The other aspect of psychopathy, sometimes called ‘self-centred impulsivity’—an aspect generally considered maladaptive—showed no relationship with presidential performance.
What the authors were really interested in, though, was whether this aspect of psychopathy called ‘fearless dominance’ was associated with better presidential performance.
To find out, the authors looked at common measures of presidential greatness, like how long they were president, their intellectual greatness and their war heroism before becoming president. Then they looked to see if the ‘greatest’ presidents—as measured by averaging out 12 different surveys on the question—had higher levels of fearless dominance.
Indeed they did.
As Lilienfeld et al. (2012) conclude:
“…our results raise the intriguing but unresearched possibility that the boldness often associated with psychopathy may confer advantages across a host of occupations, vocations, and social roles, such as positions of power and prestige in politics, business, law enforcement, athletics, and the military.”
* * *
For comparison, here is the bottom of the rankings for fearless dominance starting with the lowest scorer, William H. Taft, in other words he was the most fearful and least dominant US president:
- William H. Taft
- John Q. Adams
- Calvin Coolidge
- William McKinley
- James Buchanan
- John Adams
- Herbert Hoover
- Andrew Johnson
- Harry S. Truman
- James Garfield
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
Image credit: Wikipedia