Psychopathy &
the presidents

In 2010, psychologists handed out a personality test to the biographers of every U.S. president in history. But there was a catch. It wasn't the biographers who were being tested. It was their subjects.

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In 2010, Scott Lilienfeld at Emory University teamed up with forensic psychologist Steven Rubenzer and Thomas Faschingbauer, professor of psychology at the Foundation for the Study of Personality in History, in Houston, Texas, to hand out a personality test to the biographers of every U.S. president in history. But there was a catch. It wasn't the biographers who were being tested. It was their subjects. The biographers, based on their knowledge, had to answer on their subjects' behalf. On the basis of the results, Lilienfeld then estimated the degree to which each president exhibited psychopathic character traits.

The overall ranking list featured below has been compiled on the basis of aggregate presidential ratings on two dimensions of the Psychopathic Personality Inventory (PPI): Fearless Dominance and Impulsive Antisociality. As such, it provides an estimate of the true standings of the presidents on the inventory.

Fearless Dominance, which reflects the boldness associated with psychopathy, was associated with higher ratings of presidential performance, leadership, persuasiveness, crisis management, Congressional relations, and related variables. It was also associated with a number of more objective indicators of presidential performance, such as initiating new projects, and being viewed as a world figure.

In contrast, Impulsive Antisociality, and related psychopathic traits were, in general, negatively correlated with highly rated presidential performance. Instead, they were associated with negative indicators of job performance, including Congressional impeachment resolutions, tolerating unethical behavior in subordinates, and unsavoury character.

In the table below, the numbers in the right hand column refer to the average ranking position of each president across both PPI dimensions. John F Kennedy, for example, was ranked second highest (out of 42) on the Fearless Dominance dimension, and sixth highest on the Impulsive Antisociality dimension – which equates to an average rank of 4 across both scales. Bill Clinton – also with an overall average ranking of 4 – came in seventh highest on Fearless Dominance, but enjoyed top billing when it came to Impulsive Antisociality.

The Presidents: A League Table of Psychopathic Traits

John F Kennedy 4
William Clinton 4
Andrew Jackson 6.5
Theodore Roosevelt 7
Lyndon B Johnson 8.5
Franklin D Roosevelt 7.5
Chester Arthur 9.5
George W Bush 9.5
Ronald Reagan 14
Richard Nixon 17.5
Andrew Johnson 19
James Polk 19
John Adams 22.5
John Tyler 15.5
Martin van Buren 18.5
Woodrow Wilson 19.5
Warren Harding 19.5
William Harrison 19.5
Benjamin Harrison 20
James Earl Carter 23
Zachary Taylor 22
George Washington 21.5
Thomas Jefferson 23
Ulysses S Grant 24
John Q Adams 25.5
Dwight D Eisenhower 24.5
Gerald Ford 25.5
Abraham Lincoln 27
James Garfield 25
Harry S Truman 33
Herbert Hoover 25.5
Franklin Pierce 28
James Madison 29
Calvin Coolidge 30.5
George H Bush 32
Grover Cleveland 33.5
James Buchanan 34.5
William Taft 28
Rutherford Hayes 23.5
James Monroe 35.5
Millard Fillmore 33.5
William McKinley 39.5

(Reference: Scott O. Lilienfeld, Irwin D. Waldman, Kristin Landfield, Ashley L. Watts, Steven J. Rubenzer, and Thomas R. Faschingbauer, "Fearless Dominance and the U.S. Presidency: Implications of Psychopathic Personality Traits for Successful and Unsuccessful Political Leadership," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (in press).)