narcissism and empathy
May 31, 2014

Narcissists Are Capable Of Feeling Empathy, They Just Have To Be Shown The Way

Alan McStravick for - Your Universe Online

If you know a narcissist or are one yourself, then you know how the condition leads to an inflated sense of self-importance combined with a deep need for admiration. At its root, narcissism is actually a cleverly constructed mask worn by those with a low or fragile self-esteem.

Like the many other personality disorders, narcissistic personality disorder causes the affected to behave in a manner that limits their ability to function in relationships, work and school. Characterized by a feeling of superiority to most everyone they encounter, partnered with little to no regard for the feelings of other people, treatment for this disorder has typically centered around psychotherapy.

A new study, however, has shown a new method to work past a narcissist’s ability to feel empathy for those around them. Researchers from the University of Surrey and the University of Southampton in England have discovered that by teaching a narcissist a few exercises, they can begin to understand and relate to those around them who are in distressing situations. This, the researchers claim, may be important for the prevention of violent and anti-social behaviors that are often linked to narcissistic personality disorder.

The first study conducted aimed to provide analysis of how sympathetic a narcissist might be to a person of the same gender who is suffering as a result of the break-up of an intimate relationship. Each subject was asked to rate, on a scale of 1-8, how empathetic they felt. Unsurprisingly, those individuals who were deemed to possess a high narcissism level lacked empathy for the distressed person.

In the second of three studies conducted, the situation the subjects were asked to react to involved a female who had been victimized in a domestic violence situation by a male perpetrator. One half of the participants were specifically tasked with imagining how the woman felt. This study showed those with high narcissism were, in fact, fully capable of showing empathy when they were made to put themselves in the shoes of the victim.

While self-reporting could be skewed by the participants choosing to give what they believed to be the desired answer, the third study tested the participants' heartbeats when presented with another scenario. It has been well established that an increase in heart rate is indicative of an empathic response. Participants were made to listen to an audio blog of someone who had just suffered a relationship break-up. Those participants deemed to suffer from high narcissism presented a significantly lower heart rate than non-narcissistic participants.

Interestingly, when the research team instructed the participants to imagine they were the character who had just experienced this stressful scenario, the narcissistic participants’ heart rates increased to the same levels as those participants who possessed low narcissistic tendencies.

"Our results clearly show that 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 and sympathetic way," said lead author, Dr. Erica Hepper from the University of Surrey. "This is not only good for the people around them, but also for their own wellbeing in the long-run as empathy helps to form and maintain close relationships."

"Our research provides a crucial breakthrough, as other studies suggest narcissism is increasing across cultures. If narcissists have the physical capacity to feel empathy, interventions could be designed to help them do so in their everyday lives, with benefits to themselves, their family, friends and colleagues and for society as a whole," said Hepper.

The research is published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.