Published: 21 July 2016

Psychology research breakthrough suggests narcissists are capable of empathy

Narcissists tend to lack empathy, which can cause problems for themselves, the people around them and society in general. But promising new research from the University of Surrey suggests narcissists do in fact possess the physical capacity to empathise with someone else's distress.

You probably know a narcissist or two. These are people who may seem charismatic at first, but whose charm wears off as we experience their inflated egos, game-playing attention-seeking behaviour and tendency to claim credit for successes while blaming others for failure.

Though clinical Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is rare, people with sub-clinical 'high narcissist' tendencies can still be more interested in getting ahead than getting along.

"Narcissists, while very normal, can be frustrating to deal with sometimes," says Dr Erica Hepper, a psychologist from the University of Surrey who researches narcissism.

"For example, a narcissistic friend might not provide the best support when we ask for it, or a narcissistic colleague may dismiss other team members’ suggestions or needs out of hand."

Part of the problem is that narcissists tend to lack empathy, which is the ability to vicariously experience another person's perspective or emotions. Empathy is important as a 'social glue' that helps personal relationships and social bonds to form, develop and endure.

High narcissists may be very successful in their chosen careers (whereas people with NPD often find day-to-day life very difficult), but without empathy they are much more likely to experience interpersonal failures in their private, professional and social lives.

Collectively, we seem to be getting more narcissistic.

The bad news for all of us is that, collectively, we seem to be getting more narcissistic.

Studies suggest that narcissism has been increasing across different cultures for the past three decades (as measured by the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI)), with younger people more likely to exhibit narcissism than older generations. Empathy appears to be on the decrease.

The good news: intervention

But there is good news too: Dr Hepper's recent research has found that narcissists are not actually incapable of feeling empathy - we just have to intervene a little to provide the conditions in which they will do so.

This could give psychologists a foothold on which to base intervention measures to help narcissists empathise more freely.

This is important for us all, as narcissists tend to use more than their fair share of resources, are more prone to aggressive or anti-social behaviour, and are more likely to commit crimes and go to prison.

People with low empathy levels are also less likely to engage in pro-social activities such as volunteering or supporting charities.

Narcissists tend to use more than their fair share of resources, are more prone to aggressive or anti-social behaviour, and are more likely to commit crimes and go to prison

Dr Hepper's research project, published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, staged three studies involving people with sub-clinical narcissistic tendencies. In each, the participants were exposed to other people’s distressing experiences, after which their levels of empathy were tested.

In the first study, participants read one of a selection of short vignettes ostensibly written by a person talking about their recent relationship breakup.

Participants with a higher score on the NPI were less likely to report feelings of empathy towards the author of the vignette, regardless of the severity of the distress described or whether the author seemed in control of the situation (and thus partially culpable) or not.

The study also suggested that this lack of empathy was driven less by so-called 'adaptive' narcissistic traits (that is, traits considered socially desirable, such as authority and self-sufficiency) and more by 'maladaptive' narcissistic traits (such as exploitativeness, entitlement and exhibitionism).

Sometimes it's about perspective

In the second study, participants were shown a video describing a woman's experience of domestic violence, including an interview with the woman herself.

Some participants were asked to take the woman's perspective and imagine how she is feeling, while others were asked only to imagine they were watching the video at home during a typical evening.

"Empathy research suggests that when we put ourselves in another person’s shoes and imagine a situation from their point of view, we actually process that situation using the same parts of the brain that we use to process our own experiences," explains Dr Hepper.

"Therefore, we automatically experience the situation as the other person would, which leads to feeling emotions that match theirs, as well as compassion for their situation." The question was whether high narcissists’ brains work in the same way as low narcissists'.

High narcissists who had been assigned to the 'cognitive perspective-taking' group reported higher empathy for the woman than those in the control group, while low narcissists in both groups reported similar empathy levels (implying they were already taking her perspective).

Again, the maladaptive components of narcissism seemed to explain the differences in empathy levels.

"Our findings are promising in suggesting that even relatively anti-social members of society can be empathic." - Dr Erica Hepper, School of Psychology, University of Surrey

The third study tested whether the previous results could be replicated with 'autonomic', physiological signals instead of self-reported empathy levels.

Research has shown that increases in heart rate are a reliable indicator of empathic responses to other people's distress, so each participant's heart rate was monitored while they listened to a 5-minute audio recording of a woman describing her recent relationship breakup.

Again, participants were assigned to either a cognitive perspective-taking group or a control group.

Is there evidence in the heart rate?

Participants higher in maladaptive narcissism traits showed lower heart rates than other participants in response to the distressed woman, but this discrepancy was eliminated by perspective-taking as their heart rates went up when asked to put themselves in her position and imagine how she was feeling.

"Our findings are promising in suggesting that even relatively anti-social members of society can be empathic," commented Dr Hepper. "This is not only good for the people around them, but also good for their own wellbeing in the long-run as empathy helps to form and maintain close relationships."

Dr Hepper's paper goes on to discuss the implications for future intervention strategies, cautioning that perspective-taking may interfere with the natural process of empathy-building among people with low levels of narcissism.

But with the proviso that interventions should be targeted at high narcissists, future research could investigate which particular mechanism induces their empathy, with interventions then designed accordingly.

For example, if perspective-taking works by activating high narcissists' desire to succeed in tasks, interventions could be designed with clear tasks to make the process intrinsically appealing to them and so subtly encourage the awakening of their dormant natural ability to empathise.

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This feature was originally posted on 30 May 2014.

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