Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Findings

narcissus

Narcissus, by Caravaggio. (Photo: Public Domain)

Narcissists Are Capable of Empathy After All

• May 30, 2014 • 6:00 AM

Narcissus, by Caravaggio. (Photo: Public Domain)

New research from the U.K. suggests people with narcissistic tendencies can be moved by others’ suffering.

Can narcissists really change? The just-completed half-season of Mad Men, in which the self-centered Don Draper has gradually settled into a new role as a supportive friend and team player, appears to be answering that question in the affirmative. But is this alpha male’s evolution into empathy realistic?

Newly published research from Britain suggests it is.

In three experiments, a team led by University of Surrey psychologist Erica Hepper provides evidence that, under the right conditions, narcissists can indeed be moved by the suffering of others.

“Although it appears that narcissists’ low empathy is relatively automatic … there is potential for change,” the researchers write in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

“The reason for (narcissists’) low empathy is not inability.” Caring about another person’s problems is not their default response, but this study suggests it can be induced by a simple instruction to see things from his or her point of view.

Their first experiment confirmed what we all know: Narcissists tend to have a chilly response to others’ problems. A group of 282 online volunteers responded to a series of statements designed to measure their levels of “adaptive narcissism” (that is, their sense of authority and self-sufficiency) and “maladaptive narcissism” (feelings of entitlement and tendency to exploit others).

Presented with various versions of a vignette in which a person describes a recent break-up, the narcissists displayed a lack of empathy, “virtually irrespective of whether the person’s situation is relatively mild or severe (in terms of the pain it caused), and whether that person was somewhat in control, and thus partly culpable, or not.”

The second experiment featured 95 female undergraduates who completed the same test to measure narcissistic tendencies. One to six months later, they watched a 10-minute documentary in which a woman describes being the victim of domestic violence.

Half the participants were instructed beforehand to “imagine how Susan feels.” The others were told to imagine they were at home watching the report on television. All then reported their level of care and concern for the woman.

While those who ranked low in narcissism responded with the same level of empathy regardless of the instructions, those with narcissistic tendencies “reported significantly higher empathy for Susan when they had been instructed to take her perspective,” the researchers write. Simply being told to see things from her point of view—something that does not come naturally for narcissists—allowed them to step outside themselves and feel something for her.

Ah, but were they faking it? The third and final experiment suggests not. A group of 88 undergraduates performed a similar test, getting one of the two aforementioned instructions and then listening to an audio blog in which a person describes a difficult romantic break-up. Only in this case, the participants were hooked up to monitors that measured their heart rate.

When imagining they were listening at home, “high narcissists evinced significantly lower heart rates while exposed to a target character’s distress,” the researchers report. “This suggests that narcissists’ lack of empathy is more than skin-deep. “However, crucially, taking the character’s perspective wiped out the decline in heart rate evinced by those high in maladaptive narcissism.” Their physiological response gives them away: They were actually feeling something.

The bottom line, according to Hepper and her colleagues: “The reason for (narcissists’) low empathy is not inability.” Caring about another person’s problems is not their default response, but this study suggests it can be induced by a simple instruction to see things from his or her point of view.

The researchers consider this particularly good news, “given recent evidence of rising narcissism levels and falling empathy levels.” If, as some studies suggest, we’re getting more narcissistic as a society, it’s a relief to know the condition can be modified.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 20 • 10:28 AM

Flare-Ups

Are my emotions making me ill?


December 19 • 4:00 PM

How a Drug Policy Reform Organization Thinks of the Children

This valuable, newly updated resource for parents is based in the real world.


December 19 • 2:00 PM

Where Did the Ouija Board Come From?

It wasn’t just a toy.


December 19 • 12:00 PM

Social Scientists Can Do More to Eradicate Racial Oppression

Using our knowledge of social systems, all social scientists—black or white, race scholar or not—have an opportunity to challenge white privilege.


December 19 • 10:17 AM

How Scientists Contribute to Bad Science Reporting

By not taking university press officers and research press releases seriously, scientists are often complicit in the media falsehoods they so often deride.


December 19 • 10:00 AM

Pentecostalism in West Africa: A Boon or Barrier to Disease?

How has Ghana stayed Ebola-free despite being at high risk for infection? A look at their American-style Pentecostalism, a religion that threatens to do more harm than good.


December 19 • 8:00 AM

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.


December 19 • 6:12 AM

All That ‘Call of Duty’ With Your Friends Has Not Made You a More Violent Person

But all that solo Call of Duty has.


December 19 • 4:00 AM

Food for Thought: WIC Works

New research finds participation in the federal WIC program, which subsidizes healthy foods for young children, is linked with stronger cognitive development and higher test scores.


December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



Follow us


Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.