Narcissists are apparently growing in number. These are people who put their own interests first, constantly showing off, and taking credit where it’s not deserved. You might know someone like this – perhaps your boss, or even your romantic partner. If so, a new study offers hope. Apparently narcissists can be taught to be more empathic.
Erica Hepper and her colleagues first confirmed that narcissistic traits go hand in hand with low empathy. They surveyed nearly 300 people online, mostly students, and found that those who scored higher in narcissism (they agreed with numerous self-aggrandising and controlling statements like: “I have a natural talent for influencing people”, “I insist on getting respect” and “I wish somebody would write my autobiography”) tended to be unmoved by the story of a person’s distressing relationship breakup.
Next, the researchers tested the effect of a simple intervention. Across two further studies, nearly 200 students either watched a video of a women describing her experience of domestic abuse, or they heard an audio recording of a woman describing her traumatic relationship break up. Crucially, half the students were instructed to: “Imagine how Susan feels. Try to take her perspective in the video/audio, imagining how she is feeling about what is happening.” The other half were told to imagine they were simply watching the video /listening to the audio, at home.
As expected, students who scored highly on narcissism (especially maladaptive narcissism, involving exhibitionism, sense of entitlement and exploiting others), tended to say they had less concern for the women and felt less distress at the stories. The narcissists also showed less of an emotional reaction in terms of their heart rate. However, when they were instructed to take the women’s perspective, the narcissists showed normal levels of empathy, both in terms of their self-reported feelings, and having a raised heart rate. This suggests narcissists are capable of change – their lack of empathy is not due to lack of capacity, but more to do with lack of motivation.
“We hope that the present findings represent a first step toward better understanding of how narcissists can be moved by others, thereby improving their social behaviour and relationships,” said Hepper and her team.
We shouldn’t get too carried away by these findings – the samples are relatively small, and made up mostly of students. The scenarios all involved romantic relationships, so it’s not clear if the results would generalise. We also don’t know if the apparent boosts to narcissists’ empathy would translate to more altruistic behaviour. The researchers recognise these shortcomings, and they’re planning studies involving “real social interactions and ongoing relationships.” Meanwhile, if there’s a narcissist in your life, this study suggests it could be worth asking them make the effort to take other people’s perspective.
Hepper, E., Hart, C., & Sedikides, C. (2014). Moving Narcissus: Can Narcissists Be Empathic? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin DOI: 10.1177/0146167214535812
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