Can We Teach Narcissists to Care?

New studies show there may be a way to guide them toward empathy.

Posted Sep 22, 2014

Narcissists are people who maintain their self-esteem by drawing on the energy of other people. They thrive on the accolades of others and like to broadcast their achievements. They also have difficulty in their social interactions, because they do not really empathize with others.

Empathy is the ability to understand and experience someone else’s emotions. Empathy is a crucial aspect of social relationships. We are able to work effectively with other people because we understand what they need. We recognize what other people are experiencing, and that helps us to exhibit pro-social behaviors that benefit other people—and to avoid antisocial behaviors that harm others.

Because empathy is so important for social interactions, it is valuable to know whether people with a tendency toward narcissism can be led to experience more empathy. This issue was explored in a paper by Erica Hepper, Claire Hart, and Constantine Sedikides in the September, 2014 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin

The first study they did demonstrated that narcissists really do tend to exhibit low levels of empathy.  Participants completed a personality inventory that measures narcissism. Then, they read a story about a person who had just gone through a romantic breakup. The person in the story was the same gender as the participant. In the stories, the breakup was either mild or devastating, and the person either saw it coming or did not.

After reading the vignette, participants filled out a scale about how much they empathized with the person in the story. The expectation was that non-narcissists would empathize more with the writer when the breakup was severe than when it was mild. The results bear this out and find that narcissists generally did not empathize with the writer, particularly when the breakup was severe.

Two other studies asked whether instructing people to really take someone else’s perspective would push narcissists to feel more empathy. In one study, participants who had filled out a narcissism inventory watched a video about a victim of domestic violence. Some participants were given specific instructions to imagine how the victim was feeling and to take her perspective; others were not. After watching the video, participants filled out a survey about how much they empathized with the victim.

Participants high in narcissism did not empathize much with the victim when they just watched the video. But when they were given specific instructions to take the victim’s perspective, they did show levels of empathy similar to those of non-narcissists.

A final study used a similar method, but rather than relying on survey questions, the experimenters measured heart rate. Previous research demonstrates that increases in heart rate are a reliable signal that people are empathizing with others. Essentially, when you feel someone else’s emotion, you get an increase in arousal, which increases heart rate. Narcissists given no instructions before watching a video (in this case about a woman undergoing a breakup) did not show an increase in heart rate, but those who were told to take the other person’s perspective did show an increase in heart rate.

These results suggest that narcissists are capable of empathy, but, most of the time, do not put in the effort to take another person’s perspective. If it is clearly important for narcissist to take another person’s perspective, then they can do it, although, most of the time, they do not. 

In order to help narcissists engage in more pro-social behavior, then, it is important to give them reasons to want to take other people’s point of view rather than just focusing on themselves.

Follow me on Twitter

And on Facebook and on Google+.

Check out my new book Smart Change.

And my books Smart Thinking and Habits of Leadership

Listen to my radio show on KUT radio in Austin Two Guys on Your Head and follow 2GoYH on Twitter.