Can Narcissists Feel Empathy?

narcissistsQuestion: Can a narcissist feel empathy for another person who is suffering?[1] Researchers at the University of Surrey and the University of Southampton investigated this question, and also looked into whether a previously non-empathetic person could change their behavior.1

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 pro-social behavior.”1

For the study, researchers focused on individuals with subclinical narcissism, instead of those with a clinical diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).1 “[This is because] people high in subclinical narcissism are psychologically healthy and well-adjusted, often very successful, whereas people with NPD are inflexible and volatile, and don’t manage day-to-day life well,” said Hepper.1

Also, subclinical narcissism is more common, with the number of people exhibiting these traits on the rise.1 Researchers grouped their participants into two groups: low narcissists and high narcissists.1 These categories identified the participants as being either less or more narcissistic than the average person.1

Participants were asked to read a passage that described a recent relationship break-up.1 Regardless of how mild or severe the scenario was, high narcissists did not show empathy.1 These findings pinpoint the role of narcissism as driven by negative traits, such as entitlement, explosiveness, and exhibitionism.1

The next experiment was designed to test whether narcissists are capable of showing empathy when they are specifically asked to take on the perspective of the target person.1 The female participants watched a 10-minute documentary that described a woman’s experience with domestic violence.1 They were then asked to imagine how she feels.1 Low narcissists were easily able to take on her perspective, while high narcissists needed prompting to take on her perspective.1

Then, researchers wondered if narcissists could not just be moved emotionally, but physiologically as well.1 Prior research has established that an increase in heart rate in a strong indicator of an empathetic response to another’s emotions or suffering.1 High narcissists has a much lower heart rate when exposed to a target character’s suffering, showing that empathy was lacking physiologically as well.1 However, when asked to take the perspective of the target character, the heart rates of the high narcissists rose to the same level as the autonomic arousal of the low narcissists.1

Therefore, narcissists, under the right conditions, do have the ability to empathize with others’ needs.1

“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.1

[1] Pedersen, T. (2014). Can a Narcissist Feel Empathy?. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 2, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/news/2014/05/31/can-a-narcissist-feel-empathy/70613.html

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