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Narcissists Are Capable of Empathy After All

New research from the U.K. suggests people with narcissistic tendencies can be moved by others’ suffering.
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Narcissus, by Caravaggio. (Photo: Public Domain)

Narcissus, by Caravaggio. (Photo: Public Domain)

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.