Can Narcissists Feel Empathy?

Updated on July 14, 2018
Natalie Frank profile image

Natalie Frank (Taye Carrol), a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, publishes on multiple topics in health, behavioral science, and other fields.

Experiments on Empathy in Narcissists

Can narcissists feel empathy? A series of experiments supports the idea that narcissism does not involve the actual inability to experience or recognize another person's emotions or needs but rather the unwillingness to do so. Researchers at the University of Surrey and the University of Southampton examined whether an individual could feel another’s distress, and whether someone with narcissistic qualities who does not display empathy could change to do so. These studies focused on those with subclinical narcissism as defined by the DSM as opposed to the more problematic narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). Participants were divided into those who displayed greater empathy than average and those displaying less empathy than average (Hepper, Hart & Sedikides, 2014).

In the first study, participants read a case about someone who had suffered a recent break up. The scenario was altered in terms of the severity of the person’s reaction. Regardless of the severity of scenario, those high in narcissistic qualities did not show empathy. This was the case even when the person described was said to suffer from extreme, overwhelming depression and hopelessness. The outcome also showed that this lack of empathy was related to the associated negative characteristics of entitlement, explosiveness, and exhibitionism.

The next experiment investigated whether narcissists are able to show empathy when pointedly asked to take on the perspective of the target person. Female participants were shown a 10-minute documentary which detailed a woman’s experience with domestic abuse. They were instructed to imagine how the person felt as they watched the video. Whereas those low in narcissistic qualities took the woman’s perspective without the need to be told to do so, those high in narcissistic qualities altered their point of view. They displayed a far greater degree of empathy compared to those in the first study.

The final study examined whether the shift in empathy triggered by suggestions to take another’s perspective could be seen not only emotionally but also physiologically. Previous research has indicated that increases in heart rate are a strong indicator of an empathetic response to another person’s suffering. Initially, those high in narcissistic tendencies showed lower physiological arousal when shown another’s distress that their counterparts. When instructed to take another’s perspective however, their physiological arousal decreased to the level shown by those low in narcissistic qualities.

Implications of Research

The findings from these studies suggest that those with narcissist characteristics are able to empathize with other’s distress under certain circumstances and that they can alter their ability to do so. However, it is important to note that these studies did not examine those with actual Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Also, the perspective taking studies only included women as subjects so it might be concluded that males and those with more severe narcissism might not respond similarly.

These studies also did not examine whether a narcissist could empathize with another’s positive emotions. This might be more difficult for narcissist since negative emotions may not make the narcissist experience envy to the extent they do when someone is happy due to receiving good news or another positive circumstance. In the case of positive emotions, a narcissist may actually feel that someone else should not have positive experiences the narcissist themselves is not experiencing. This is especially the case when the cause of another’s positive emotions is something valued by society such as marriage or receiving a promotion. The narcissist is generally not consciously aware of this envy nor will they easily admit to it when it is suggested as a possibility in therapy.

Narcissism According to the DSM 5

It is important to remember two important things that characterizes narcissists however. First, narcissists frequently establish relationships successfully which later may go wrong. One of the classic features of narcissism is acting in a manner that is superficially charming to the point that, at least at first, they know what it takes to meet social expectations and have developed behaviors that allow them to do so.

Yet the characteristics of NPD would suggest otherwise. According to the DSM 5 these are as follows:

  • “Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others
  • Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)
  • Has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations
  • Is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends
  • Is often envious of others or believes others are envious of him or her
  • Requires excessive admiration
  • Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes
  • Believes that he or she is "special" and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)
  • Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love”

(American Psychiatric Association, 2013)

These are not characteristics to which most of us would likely be attracted nor would we likely want to establish a relationship with, or indeed even be around, someone who displays these characteristics. Yet many of those with Narcissistic Personality Disorder do marry, obtain jobs and maintain a way to meet their physical and functional needs. This illustrates the fact that those with NPD know what to do, what is socially acceptable and desirable, to form interpersonal relationships. So if they are aware of what is necessary in order to form real relationships and to have others genuinely care and respect them, why don’t they simply act accordingly?

Why Aren't Narcissists Empathic?

This question has not been completely answered to date but a large part of the solution is likely found in the narcissist’s negative self-concept that they fervently defend against perceiving on a conscious level. Underneath the narcissist’s problematic characteristics is a significant lack of self-esteem and perceived self-worth. People develop different ways of coping with such deficits in the manner in which they view themselves and, while some may self-sabotage to avoid cognitive dissonance, the narcissist banishes conscious awareness of self-doubt replacing it with a false sense of self. The clear degree of overcompensation for the lack of self-esteem is seen in their need to not just feel accomplished but to feel superior to everyone with whom they come into contact.

Summary and Conclusions

The results of the studies reviewed here, while interesting, are not likely to provide the first step in helping narcissists experience and express empathy. In order to do this, their defenses against understanding the underlying causes of their perceptions and behavior must be exposed. Additionally, the resulting inability of the narcissist to understand why others respond to them in a manner other than the way they expect must be explored.

Until the person is able to understand their actual self-perceptions and replace them with a different set of perceptions they will always need to be completely focused on establishing, at least in their own mind, that they are superior in every way to those around them. Failing to do so, even for a short period of time, would result in the awareness that they may not always be the most deserving of rewards, the most popular in a group or the best at a skill or talent. In turn, this awareness which well-adjusted individual’s take in stride as a fact of life, could open the door to the narcissists true self-perception which they are unable to accept and which would overwhelm their ability to cope.

Only by slowly exposing their true view of themselves, can a narcissist come to the point that they can begin to accept their difficulties. Processing what led to these negative self-perceptions and replacing faulty perceptions with a realistic understanding of the person’s true abilities and faults will help make a narcissist accepting of guidance. It is this process of giving the individual an accurate understanding of who they are and how others perceive them that will enable the narcissist to stop focusing exclusively on themselves and come to be able to focus on the needs of others.

References

American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-5®). American Psychiatric Pub.

Brunell, A. B., Tumblin, L., & Buelow, M. T. (2014). Narcissism and the motivation to engage in volunteerism. Current Psychology, 33(3), 365-376.

Hepper, E. G., Hart, C. M., & Sedikides, C. (2014). Moving Narcissus: Can Narcissists Be Empathic? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 0146167214535812.

Questions & Answers

  • What does it mean to be a cerebral vs. a somatic narcissist?

    What is a Cerebral vs. Somatic Narcissist?

    Psychological research has now classified narcissists into two types, Cerebral and Somatic. As could be inferred by the terms, cerebral narcissists use their brains to impress and manipulate those around them while somatic narcissists use their bodies. It is unclear whether narcissists are specifically one or the other, predominantly one or the other or whether they may switch between the two states.

    Cerebral narcissists are either very intelligent or will pretend to be. They can develop a very convincing script that will use what they know while while they skillfully read the speaker and conversation to be able to sound like they are knowledgeable about the area. They want to be thought of and praised for their advanced intellect so their body isn’t a focus of attention.

    Cerebral narcissists will often seek and successfully hold positions of power and authority where they are given a great deal of responsibility. They are able to use their extreme self-confidence and sense of superiority to get others to do what they want. They first seek followers who they can easily manipulate then once they have a number of supporters they begin seeking out followers that have more clout and will be more useful to them. They believe they are above the law and that they can do what they want without fear of consequences. Many of these types of narcissists will avoid sexual relationships as they feel physicality detracts from their image as an academic scholar with high IQ.

    Somatic narcissists are focused on their body. They are obsessed with how, how attractive they look and how they can use their physical appearance to get what they want. They show off their body every way possible and seek out compliments while appearing not to be aware of their looks. Often somatic narcissists have multiple cosmetic surgery procedures to maintain a young, attractive appearance. They always dress in the most up to date clothing and may replace their wardrobe every season to ensure nothing they wear is out of style. They diet frequently and spend hours a day at the gym to maintain their physique.

    Somatic narcissists have numerous sexual relationships and often brag either directly or indirectly about their sexual conquests. Whenever others engage them in conversation they will interpret this to be a sexual invitation. They use sex for personal satisfaction as well as to get what they want by gaining an ally or someone with resources that they need.

    A number of researchers believe that narcissists have both cerebral and somatic traits, using these differential based on the situation. In professional situation or formal situations they are more likely to use cerebral strategies. In interpersonal or informal situations they are more likely to use somatic strategies. It appears that narcissists do tend to prefer one type of strategy over the other and in situations that can go either way they will default to their preferred type of strategy, either cerebral or somatic.

    References

    Bates, C., & Neff, M. R. (2017). Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

    Kohut, H. (2013). The analysis of the self: A systematic approach to the psychoanalytic treatment of narcissistic personality disorders. University of Chicago Press.

    Lammers, C. H., Vater, A., & Roepke, S. (2013). Narcissistic personality disorder. Der Nervenarzt, 84(7), 879-86.

  • What is the definition of a malignant narcissist?

    There have been some different methods researchers and clinicians have used to categorize narcissists. One way breaks narcissism into two subtypes. The grandiose subtype was described as “grandiose, arrogant, entitled, exploitative, and envious.” The vulnerable subtype was described as “overly self-inhibited and modest but harboring underlying grandiose expectations for oneself and others.” (Dickinson & Pincus, 2003).

    Subsequent research suggested that there were three subtypes of narcissism, which were grandiose/malignant, fragile and high-functioning/exhibitionistic. The grandiose/malignant subtype was characterized by seething anger, interpersonal manipulativeness, the pursuit of interpersonal power and control, lack of remorse, exaggerated self-importance, and feelings of privilege. These narcissists did not seem to experience a poor self-concept, feelings of inadequacy or to experience negative emotional states except anger. They demonstrated little insight into their behavior and blamed others for their problems.

    Grandiose/malignant narcissists tend to have the greatest problems with substance abuse and the greatest amount of acting out or violent behavior such as getting into fights and spousal abuse (Russ, Shedler, Bradley, & Westen, 2008).

    Characteristics of the Grandiose/Malignant Narcissist (Russ, Shedler, Bradley, & Westen, 2008)

    - Has an exaggerated sense of self-importance (e.g., feels special, superior, grand, or envied)

    - Appears to feel privileged and entitled; expects preferential treatment

    - Has little empathy; seems unable or unwilling to understand or respond to others’ needs or feelings

    - Tends to blame own failures or shortcomings on other people or circumstances; attributes his or her difficulties to external factors rather than accepting responsibility for own conduct or choices

    - Tends to be critical of others

    - Tends to be controlling

    - Tends to have extreme reactions to perceived slights or criticism (e.g., may react with rage, humiliation, etc.)

    - Has little psychological insight into own motives, behavior, etc.

    - Tends to get into power struggles

    - Tends to be angry or hostile (whether consciously or unconsciously)

    - Takes advantage of others; has little investment in moral values (e.g., puts own needs first, uses or exploits people with little regard for their feelings or welfare, etc.)

    - Tends to be dismissive, haughty, or arrogant

    - Tends to seek power or influence over others (whether in beneficial or destructive ways)

    - Tends to hold grudges; may dwell on insults or slights for long periods

    - Tends to be manipulative

    - Tends to feel misunderstood, mistreated, or victimized

    - Is prone to intense anger, out of proportion to the situation at hand (e.g., has rage episodes)

    - Experiences little or no remorse for harm or injury caused to others

    References

    Dickinson, K.A, Pincus, A.L., (2003). Interpersonal analysis of grandiose and vulnerable narcissism. J Personal Disord 2003; 17:188–207.

    Russ, E., Shedler, J., Bradley, R., & Westen, D. (2008). Refining the construct of narcissistic personality disorder: Diagnostic criteria and subtypes. American Journal of Psychiatry, 165(11), 1473-1481.

  • What is reverse narcissism?

    Reverse narcissism is an infrequently used term referring to covert narcissism. Covert narcissism is a less obvious form of narcissism than what is usually referred to when describing the disorder. Often the person with covert narcissism seems shy and reserved, but this hides grandiose fantasies and thoughts, a sense of entitlement, and an overall sentiment of being better than others. They are often referred to as vulnerable narcissists to suggest they experience low self-esteem and distress because others don't treat them the way they know they deserve to be treated. They tend to not be loud, outwardly vain, obvious braggarts. Yet they are still every bit as arrogant and argumentative as people with the more outgoing brand of overt or grandiose type of narcissism.

    That being said, research shows that all narcissists display both covert (reverse, inverted) and overt (grandiose) characteristics. They may have a tendency to show more of one or the other, may switch between the two, or consciously employ one type in certain situations and the other in different situations. It has been suggested that overt and covert are simply different types of expression and not actual types of narcissism.

    Please see https://healdove.com/mental-health/Differences-Bet... for a more complete discussion of covert and overt narcissism.

© 2017 Natalie Frank

Comments

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    • Natalie Frank profile imageAUTHOR

      Natalie Frank 

      11 months ago from Chicago, IL

      Good points, thi. Thanks for the comments.

    • Natalie Frank profile imageAUTHOR

      Natalie Frank 

      18 months ago from Chicago, IL

      Thanks for the comment, Sakina. I am glad to receive feedback related to my writing style. It's good to know it's coming across clearly.

    • SakinaNasir53 profile image

      Sakina Nasir 

      18 months ago from Kuwait

      Great hub Natalie! Very well researched and written in depth. Loved your writing style, it is easy to grab and understand. Keep writing such useful and interesting hubs. :)

    • Natalie Frank profile imageAUTHOR

      Natalie Frank 

      18 months ago from Chicago, IL

      Sparkster Hubs - Thanks for the insightful comment - You are right, the research does provide hope that something can be done. The focus on neuroplastisity alone gives additional hope in that we are now aware that the brain can continue to develop long after the previously so called, "critical period" is over. Knowledge in epigenetics can provide implications for determining both how phenotypical expression might be altered in the case of NPD and hopefully, how altering phenotype may lead to other alterations limiting the amount of heritability that could potentially influence the next generation. I just started a new series on HP called the Psychology Query and the first few posts will be on NPD. I'd love your feedback. Thanks again.

    • Natalie Frank profile imageAUTHOR

      Natalie Frank 

      18 months ago from Chicago, IL

      Mehwish Ali - thanks for the comment.

    • Natalie Frank profile imageAUTHOR

      Natalie Frank 

      18 months ago from Chicago, IL

      Dora - thanks once again for your positive comment. Narcissism is an extremely complex disorder and given the characteristic prevent them from voluntarily seeking help they don't show up in treatment. Will be looking for your newest article in a bit.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      18 months ago from The Caribbean

      Narcissism is complicated both for the sufferer and the people who deal with them. Thanks for reporting the results of these studies which give us a glimpse into the severity of the problem.

    • Mehwish Ali profile image

      Mehwish Ali 

      18 months ago

      nice

    • sparkster profile image

      Sparkster Publishing 

      18 months ago from United Kingdom

      Now this is a good article and this is ground-breaking research which indeed confirms some of my beliefs and suspicions. This is the exact kind of research which is needed to help us understand this personality disorder and to perhaps develop better treatment to deal with it more effectively. At the very least, this provides us with a bit of hope that even if NPD can't be cured, specific beneficial changes can be triggered under the right circumstances. If we bring neuroplasticity and epigenetics into the equation, we might have something even more powerful.

      Sharing this.

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