Can Narcissists Be Moved to Show Empathy?
Friday, May 30, 2014
Posted by: Jen Santisi
Researchers at the University
of Surrey and the University of Southampton
have investigated whether narcissists can elicit empathy for another person's
suffering. It has been well documented that narcissists lack empathy, but why
is that the case, and do they have the capacity to change that behavior? The
research is published in Personality and
Social Psychology Bulletin.
When we think of narcissism most of us can all think of a
colleague, friend, or former significant other that would fit the description;
"A bit full of themselves, self-centered, and don't seem too concerned
about the effects they have on other people," says lead researcher, Erica
Hepper. This lack of empathy has a detrimental effect on interpersonal
relationships, social bonding and prosocial behavior.
For the purposes of this research, the researchers focused
on individuals who exhibit subclinical narcissism, rather than a clinical
diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). Dr. Hepper explains that
this distinction was made because "people high in subclinical narcissism
are psychologically healthy and well-adjusted, often even very successful,
whereas people with NPD are inflexible and volatile, and don't manage
day-to-day life well." Subclinical narcissism is also more common, and the
number of people exhibiting narcissistic traits in our society continues to
increase. The participants were broken down into two categories, 'low
narcissists' and 'high narcissists,' which identifies participants as being
less narcissistic or more narcissistic than the average person.
The researchers examined whether narcissists are capable of
empathizing with another person in distress by having participants read a
vignette describing a recent relationship break-up. Regardless of how mild or
severe the scenario was, high-narcissists did not show empathy for the subject.
The results pinpoint the role of narcissism as driven by its maladaptive
components such as entitlement, exploitativeness and exhibitionism.
Furthermore, narcissists lacked empathy even when the scenario was relatively
severe (i.e., the subject was overwhelmed with depression).
The researchers then tested whether narcissists are capable
of showing empathy when they are instructed to take the perspective of the target
person. Female participants were shown a 10-minute documentary describing a
woman's experience with domestic violence. Participants were prompted to
"imagine how she feels" while watching the video. Low-narcissists
were unaffected by the cognitive-perspective taking, implying they were already
taking the woman's perspective. High-narcissists reported significantly higher
empathy for the woman in the video when they had been instructed to take her
perspective, versus not being prompted with that suggestion.
Lastly, the researchers tested whether narcissists can be
moved, not just emotionally, but also physiologically. Previous studies have
shown that increases in heart rate reliably indicate empathetic response to
another's emotions or suffering. High-narcissists had a significantly lower
heart rate when exposed to a target character's distress, illustrating that
their lack of empathy is also physiological. However, perspective-taking led
high-narcissists to respond to another's distress with the same level of
autonomic arousal as low-narcissists.
The findings suggest that narcissists do have the capacity
to empathize with other people's needs given the right conditions. "If we
encourage narcissists to consider the situation from their teammate or friend's
point of view, they are likely to respond in a much more considerate or
sympathetic way," Dr. Hepper says. This is an encouraging result and
suggests that relatively anti-social members of society can be empathetic,
which would improve their long-term relationships.
Dr. Hepper is extending this research to on-line social
interactions and ongoing relationships, in an effort to observe whether
narcissists can respond in an empathetic way when speaking with someone who is
distressed, or with existing friends and romantic partners.
Hepper, E. G., Hart, C. M., and Sedikides, C. (2014). Moving Narcissus: Can Narcissists Be Empathic?. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin,
Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (PSPB), published
monthly, is an official journal of the Society of Personality and Social
Psychology (SPSP). SPSP promotes scientific research that explores how people
think, behave, feel, and interact. The Society is the largest organization of
social and personality psychologists in the world. Follow us on Twitter,
@SPSPnews and find us at facebook.com/SPSP.org