Can a narcissist feel empathy for another person who is suffering? Researchers at the University of Surrey and the University of Southampton wanted to investigate this question and also find out whether a previously non-empathetic person could change their behavior.
Narcissists are described as “a bit full of themselves, self-centered, and don’t seem too concerned about the effects they have on other people,” said lead researcher, Erica Hepper. This can have a damaging effect on interpersonal relationships, social bonding, and prosocial behavior.
For the study, researchers focused on individuals with subclinical narcissism, rather than a clinical diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). This is 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,” said Hepper.
Subclinical narcissism is also more common, and the number of people exhibiting these traits in our society is on the rise. Researchers grouped the participants into two categories, ‘low narcissists’ and ‘high narcissists,’ which identifies participants as being less narcissistic or more narcissistic than the average person.
Volunteers were asked to read a passage describing a recent relationship break-up. Regardless of how mild or severe the scenario was, high-narcissists did not show empathy.
These findings pinpoint the role of narcissism as driven by negative traits such as entitlement, explosiveness, and exhibitionism. Furthermore, narcissists felt no empathy even when the situation was severe (i.e., the subject was overwhelmed with depression).
The next experiment was designed to test whether narcissists are capable of showing empathy when specifically asked to take on the perspective of the target person. Female participants watched a 10-minute documentary describing a woman’s experience with domestic violence.
Volunteers were prompted to “imagine how she feels” while watching the video.
Low-narcissists were unaffected by this suggestion, implying they were already taking the woman’s perspective. On the other hand, high-narcissists reported much greater empathy for the woman in the video when asked to take her perspective, versus not being prompted with that suggestion.
Finally, researchers wanted to know whether narcissists can be moved, not just emotionally, but also physiologically. Prior research has shown that increases in heart rate are a strong indicator of an empathetic response to another’s emotions or suffering.
High-narcissists had a much lower heart rate when exposed to a target character’s suffering, revealing that their lack of empathy is also physiological. However, the perspective-taking exercise caused high-narcissists to respond to another’s distress with the same level of autonomic arousal as low-narcissists.
The findings suggest that narcissists — under the right conditions — do have the ability to empathize with other people’s needs.
“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,” said Hepper.
Researchers consider the result encouraging. If relatively antisocial members of society can be empathetic, it could improve their long-term relationships.
Hepper is going to extend the research to include online social interactions and longterm 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.