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Psychopathy and the Presidents

Abraham Lincoln

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.

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.

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