Can Narcissists Feel Empathy?
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.
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.
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© 2017 Natalie Frank