Menus Subscribe Search

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

August 20 • 10:00 AM

Death Row in Arizona: Where Human Experimentation Is the Rule, Not the Exception

Recent reports show that chemical roulette is the state’s M.O.


August 20 • 9:51 AM

Diversity Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Perception of group diversity depends on the race of the observer and the extent to which they worry about discrimination.


August 20 • 8:40 AM

Psychopathic or Just Antisocial? A Key Brain Difference Tells the Tale

Though psychopaths and antisocial people may seem similar, what occurs in their brains isn’t.


August 20 • 8:00 AM

What the Cost of Raising a Child in America Tells Us About Income Inequality

You’ll spend nearly a quarter of a million dollars to raise a kid in the United States, or about five times the annual median income.


August 20 • 6:00 AM

In Praise of ‘American Greed’

While it remains semi-hidden on CNBC and can’t claim the car chases of Cops, American Greed—now with eight seasons in the books—has proven itself a worthy endeavor.


August 20 • 4:00 AM

Of Course I Behaved Like a Jerk, I Was Just Watching ‘Jersey Shore’

Researchers find watching certain types of reality TV can make viewers more aggressive.


August 20 • 2:00 AM

Concluding Remarks About Housing Affordability and Supply Restricitions

Demand, not supply, plays the dominant role in explaining the housing affordability crisis. The wages are just too damn low.


August 19 • 4:00 PM

Can Lawmakers Only Make Laws That Corporations Allow?

There’s a telling detail in a recent story about efforts to close loopholes in corporate tax laws.




August 19 • 12:00 PM

How ‘Contagion’ Became Contagious

Do ideas and emotions really spread like a virus?


August 19 • 10:00 AM

Child Refugees: The New Barbarians

The disturbing rhetoric around the recent rise in child refugees into the United States from Central America may be shaping popular opinion on upcoming immigration reform.


August 19 • 8:00 AM

Making Police Departments More Diverse Isn’t Enough

Local police departments should reflect the communities they serve, but fixing that alone won’t curb unnecessary violence.


August 19 • 7:15 AM

Common Knowledge Makes Us More Cooperative

People are more inclined to take mutually beneficial risks if they know what others know.


August 19 • 6:00 AM

Seeking a Healthy Public School Lunch? Good Luck

Mystery meat will always win.


August 19 • 4:00 AM

The Positive Effects of Sports-Themed Video Games

New research finds sports-themed video games actually encourage some kids to get onto the field.


August 19 • 1:00 AM

DIY Diagnosis: How an Extreme Athlete Uncovered Her Genetic Flaw

When Kim Goodsell discovered that she had two extremely rare genetic diseases, she taught herself genetics to help find out why.



August 18 • 3:30 PM

Mister Rogers’ Heart-Healthy Neighborhood

Researchers find living in a friendly, cohesive neighborhood lowers seniors’ chances of having a heart attack.


August 18 • 2:00 PM

Wealth or Good Parenting?

Framing the privileges of the rich.


August 18 • 12:00 PM

How Much Did the Stigma of Mental Illness Harm Robin Williams?

Addiction treatment routinely fails people with mental illnesses, while mental health care often ignores addiction. And everywhere, stigma is rife. Can a tragic death prompt a more intelligent approach?


August 18 • 10:00 AM

Punished for Being Poor: The Problem With Using Big Data in the Justice System

Correctional departments use data-driven analyses because they’re easier and cheaper than individual assessments. But at what cost?


August 18 • 8:00 AM

What Americans Can Learn From a Vial of Tibetan Spit

Living high in the mountains for thousands of years, Tibetans have developed distinct biological traits that could benefit all of us, but translating medical science across cultures is always a tricky business.


August 18 • 6:00 AM

The Problems With William Deresiewicz’s New Manifesto

Excellent Sheep: a facile approach to an urgent critique.


August 18 • 4:00 AM

Ferguson Is a Serious Outlier

One black city council member is not nearly enough. In a study of city councils, only one place in America had a greater representational disparity than Ferguson, Missouri.


Follow us


Diversity Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Perception of group diversity depends on the race of the observer and the extent to which they worry about discrimination.

Psychopathic or Just Antisocial? A Key Brain Difference Tells the Tale

Though psychopaths and antisocial people may seem similar, what occurs in their brains isn’t.

Common Knowledge Makes Us More Cooperative

People are more inclined to take mutually beneficial risks if they know what others know.

How a Shift in Human Head Shape Changed Everything

When did homo sapiens become a more sophisticated species? Not until our skulls underwent "feminization."

Journalists Can Get PTSD Without Leaving Their Desks

Dealing with violent content takes a heavy toll on some reporters.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one
Subscribe Now

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