It’s soon time to elect a president of the USA and as usual the campaign and debates are lively and also rather hateful at times. And it’s not just Obama who is getting the hate. Blogs like for instance the Daily Kos and others have even suggested that Romney might be a psychopath. While I find this sort of negative campaigning to be counterproductive to a civilized debate, I still think the question is interesting from a psychological perspective. Could there be any truth to it?
It’s actually not a far-fetched idea. It is a fact that psychopaths differ from the rest of us in quantity rather than quality. This may sound odd, especially if you have met a real diagnosed psychopath (which I have) because they seem like from another planet. But their typical impulsivity, callousness and narcissism can be found in varying amounts in all of us. Still, practically all psychopaths have a history of violence and drug abuse. That’s hardly the case with Romney. So how is this not a far-fetched idea?
The thing is psychopathy is not one thing but two. It is a combination of two clusters of traits, one having to do with fearlessness, egoism, narcissism, amorality, manipulative behaviour as well as sensation seeking and even substance abuse. This factor is often referred to as Fearless Dominance (FD). The other factor, called Impulsive Antisociality (IA) is characterized by maladaptive impulsivity, which is linked to violent behaviour, crime and, like FD, drug abuse. The combination of these two makes for a really dangerous sort of person, the full-fledged psychopath, who will exploit other people, even raping or killing them without any sense of guilt at all. Even the angriest of Romney’s critics can hardly accuse him of being that kind of person. But what if he had just FD, could such a person be well adjusted and yet have a lot of the typical traits of a psychopath?
In a recent study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, psychologist Scott O. Lilienfeld and colleagues tested this idea on politicians. More specifically, they looked at data on presidents throughout history collected from biographers and presidential expert in order to assess the amount of psychopathic traits in form of FD and IA. They then compared these findings with the collective wisdom of historians who have evaluated the presidents.
They found that not only were there plenty of presidents with clear signs of FD, but this factor was also related to overall job performance, and especially in Public persuasiveness, Crisis management, and Agenda setting. ( It did little or nothing in some other areas such as Moral authority, Administrative skills, and International relations.) Another interesting finding is that the FD scores are higher for more contemporary presidents, suggesting a trend towards increasingly more psychopathic politicians. As for their political views it seems like the top ten have five liberals, four conservatives and Zachary Taylor, whose views I have not figured out – a centrist maybe? The top five are Theodore Roosevelt, JFK, FDR, Ronald Reagan and Rutherford B. Hayes. Bill Clinton, as might be expected, is also high up the list at number seven.
So judging by this study it seems like successful politicians can have the FD dimension of psychopathy and even benefit from it. Is this the case with Romney? There are some data to suggest it: he did act as a bully at least once in school, attacking a gay student and forcedly cutting his hair according to several witnesses. Romney says he can’t remember it – like you’d forget something like that. He tied his dog to the roof of his car for a 12 hour drive (suggesting a clear lack of empathy because he is not a stupid person), his tax evasion suggest egoism, and his flip flopping viewpoints on political issues can be construed as amorality and opportunism. All this is related to FD and suggests some form of antisocial personality.
So, while saying that Romney is a psychopath may be an overstatement, it seems likely that he is similar to a psychopath in many ways. That said, the study indicates that this could actually be a good thing, especially in a crisis. That’s one of the problems I have with Obama, that I fear he would fold to pressure in a crisis. But even so, if I was an American I couldn’t bring myself to voting for someone like Romney. Because there is an old-fashion word for Fearless Dominance – evil.