What CEOS, Presidents, and Psychopaths All Have in Common

Have you ever complained about your psycho boss? What about the nutcases running the country? Believe it or not, you may have a point: two separate psychological studies have revealed that CEOS and presidents often share personality traits with clinical psychopaths. Wait, before you declare that the world is run by crazy people, let’s clarify what “psychopath” means. Psychopathy is a personality disorder characterized by a lack of empathy, impulsivity, manipulative behavior, fearless dominance, lack of guilt, and general coldheartedness, and is often associated with violent criminals. However, not all psychopaths are violent; in fact, most psychopaths tend to lead normal lives. Aside from violent outbursts, many of the other psychopathic characteristics are actually conducive to success in high-stress professions.

A recent psychology study from Emory University indicates that, regardless of political party affiliation, American presidents have consistently exhibited a key psychopathic trait: fearless dominance. This study was based off of biographical personality assessments and overall job performance of all U.S. presidents, from George Washington to George W. Bush (there wasn’t enough data on Obama when this study was conducted). These assessments were gathered and analyzed by hundreds of historians in numerous different surveys. Scott Lilienfeld, the lead author of this study, describes fearless dominance:

An easy way to think about it is as a combination of physical and social fearlessness. People high in boldness don’t have a lot of apprehension about either physical or social things that would scare the rest of us. It’s often a kind of resilience because you don’t show lot of anxiety or frustration in the face of everyday life challenges.

Fearless dominance may be a necessary personality trait for presidents: from running for office to taking authority in national crises, the presidency is not a job for meager pushovers. However, the same trait in psychopaths is associated with “callousness, indifference to negative consequences, and impulsive antisocial behavior” [1]. This does not go to say that presidents are psychopaths. While they exhibit significantly higher levels of fearless dominance than the general population, but they also have personal qualities that are the opposite of other criteria for psychopathy. As phrased by Lilienfeld, “[Presidents] need to be bold and self confident to be willing to run, but they also have to have an amazing capacity to delay gratification and a lot of impulse control, at least in some domains.”

You’re probably wondering: which presidents showed the highest level of psychopathic traits? Based on the results of this study alone, here are the top 10 “most psychopathic” U.S. presidents:

1. Teddy Roosevelt
2. John F. Kennedy
3. Franklin D. Roosevelt
4. Ronald Reagan
5. Bill Clinton
6. Rutherford Hayes
7. Zachary Taylor
8. Martin Van Buren
9. Andrew Jackson
10. George W. Bush

Teddy Roosevelt posing with a rhinoceros he killed

Some CEOs, on the other hand, might actually be psychopaths. According to research by psychologist Paul Babiak, 1 in 25 business leaders may be psychopaths. That’s four times the likelihood of coming across a psychopath among the general population. So why do so many business leaders have psychopathic traits? (Or, why are psychopaths so drawn to the corporate world?) Drawing from Babiak’s data, Time columnist Maia Szalavitz speculates:

Psychopaths, who are characterized by being completely amoral and concerned only with their own power and selfish pleasures, may be overrepresented in the business environment because it plays to their strengths. Where greed is considered good and profitmaking is the most important value, psychopaths can thrive [2].

Manipulative behavior and fearless dominance are psychopathic traits that would benefit most non-psychopathic businesspeople, but combining these traits with other psychopathic characteristics–such as lack of guilt and lack of empathy–lead to full-blown psychopathic behavior. Not only would a psychopathic business leader be able to take charge and make sure what needs to be done is done, he can make immoral, impulsive, yet somehow effective decisions without feeling even a tinge of guilt, as well as considering other people to be fungible pawns in his grand scheme. Of course, not all CEOs are psychopaths. It’s just fascinating that so many psychopaths are drawn to this profession, and that psychopathic characteristics can actually make someone successful.

All in all, psychopaths can be influential people, and influential people can have psychopathic traits. It’s incredibly difficult to identify a true psychopath, however, since they are very manipulative, and can often fake emotions. These two studies offer insight into how psychopathic traits can actually be objectively beneficial, despite the negative connotations of psychopathy.


[1] The psychopathic trait successful presidents have in common, Time
[2] Study: 1 in 25 Business Leaders May Be Psychopaths, Time

Images via
Theodore Roosevelt

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