Would you vote for a psychopath?

Posted on October 4, 2016

Photo: flickr

The U.S. presidential race has brought a host of personalities to the fairway, so to speak. The so-called Goldwater rule, part of the American Psychiatric Association's ethical guidelines, deems it unethical for psychiatrists to comment on an individual's mental state without examining him or her in person. But from the media this election cycle, there has been no shortage of armchair diagnoses declaring several of the front-runners to be narcissists, megalomaniacs or psychopaths.

Are any of the candidates who have thrown their hat into the race really psychopaths? The label is far from one-size-fits-all. Although for most people it brings to mind serial killers such as Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer, experts use the term specifically to refer to individuals with a distinct subset of personality characteristics, among them ruthlessness, fearlessness, self-confidence, superficial charm, charisma, dishonesty, and core deficits in empathy and conscience. And while no one likes a heartless liar, the fact is that none of these traits in and of themselves presents a serious challenge to mental health. Instead what distinguishes the cold-blooded murderer from a psychopathic president is a question of context and degree. As with any personality dimension, resting levels of psychopathic characteristics vary. Using measures such as the PPI-R, researchers can conduct fine-grained analyses of these different components to uncover potentially toxic or helpful combinations - mixes that assist or derail the people who possess them.

Several studies have now placed past U.S. presidents and historical leaders under this microscope, revealing intriguing patterns. My own research has found that there are particular psychopathic traits that can benefit leaders enormously and others that lead to disaster in office. Recently I turned my attention to men and women vying for the U.S. presidency, who were, at the time I was writing this article: Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.

To evaluate the top candidates in the U.S. presidential race, I contacted one of the BBC's most respected and seasoned American political news anchors, whom I assured complete anonymity, and asked this individual to fill out the PPI-R short form on behalf of the four leading contenders at the time - Clinton, Cruz, Sanders and Trump. In each case, this anchor answered the questions by drawing on personal firsthand experiences with the candidates, as well as expert media analysis and dispassionate general impressions.

When the results were tallied, Trump trumped the rest of the field, achieving a total psychopathy score in league with Hitler and Idi Amin. Of particular note, he outscored the other three contenders in the Fearless Dominance dimension, associated with successful presidencies. At the same time, however, his "negative" psychopathic ratings were also higher than the other three candidates. Across all eight psychopathic traits, Cruz ran pretty much neck and neck with his Republican rival - but lost ground when it came to Carefree Nonplanfulness and Social Influence: in other words, his scores suggested he is less impulsive and less persuasive than Trump. In summary, the comparison between the two did not prove a knockout for Trump, but if it were a boxing match, he would have won a unanimous points decision with Cruz still on his feet at the final bell.

Among the Democratic contenders, Clinton and Sanders were fairly evenly matched on "positive" psychopathic traits - both scoring high on Social Influence and in the middle of the road on the rest. That said, the two diverged markedly on "negative" psychopathic characteristics, with Clinton's higher tally forming the basis of her significantly higher total score. At 152, Hillary surged a full 16 points higher than Thatcher, the U.K.'s only female prime minister. Allowing for the gender differences in percentile cutoffs, her score was more on par with Trump's.

The next U.S. president will also be poised to redirect world history. To make the right moves in a dangerous world, one can only hope that he or she possesses a similarly effective mix of psychopathic traits.

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Source material from Scientific American


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