Teaching Narcissists to Activate Empathy

Well-written article in the Atlantic by Olga Khazan, discussing a study which showed people with high narcissism could be persuaded to exercise their (usually less active) empathetic abilities when directed.

Only the most malignant narcissists are incapable of imagining the feelings of others; but everyday narcissists’ skill in that area is seldom used because they are always focused on what they need, ego support. When researchers asked them to put themselves in another’s place, they were able to do so. This implies consistent signals rewarding displays of empathy might help the narcissist do better at acting on the feelings of others.

Robert Morse

He believes in himself.

Love is great, but it’s actually empathy that makes the world go ‘round. Understanding other peoples’ viewpoints is so essential to human functioning that psychologists sometimes refer to empathy as “social glue, binding people together and creating harmonious relationships.”

Narcissists tend to lack this ability. Think of the charismatic co-worker who refuses to cover for a colleague who’s been in a car accident. Or the affable friend who nonetheless seems to delight in back-stabbing.

These types of individuals are what’s known as “sub-clinical” narcissists—the everyday egoists who, though they may not merit psychiatric attention, don’t make very good friends or lovers.

“If people are in a romantic relationship with a narcissist, they tend to cheat on their partners and their relationships break up sooner and end quite messily,” Erica Hepper, a psychologist at the University of Surrey in the U.K., told me. “They tend to be more deviant academically. They take credit for other peoples’ work.”

Psychologists have long thought that narcissists were largely incorrigible—that there was nothing we could do to help them be more empathetic. But for a new study in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Hepper discovered a way to measurably help narcissists feel the pain of others.

“I think what’s going on here is that people who are low on narcissism are already responding to people—telling them what to do it isn’t going to increase their empathy any further,” Hepper said. “But the higher on narcissism you get, the less empathy [you feel]. By instructing them to think about it, it activates this empathic response that was previously much weaker.”

And the narcissists weren’t just faking it. In a third experiment, Hepper showed that extreme narcissists had lower-than-average heart rates when listening to a recording of a woman in distress. (That is, “Their lack of empathy is more than skin-deep,” Hepper writes.) But if they were told to take the woman’s perspective, their heart rates leapt back up to a normal level.

More on Narcissists:

Malignant Narcissists

More on Attachment and Personality Types:

What Attachment Type Are You?
Type: Secure
Type: Anxious-Preoccupied
Type: Dismissive-Avoidant
Type: Fearful-Avoidant (aka Anxious-Avoidant)
Avoidant: Emotions Repressed Beneath Conscious Level
Serial Monogamy: the Fearful-Avoidant Do It Faster
Anxious-Preoccupied: Stuck on the Dismissive?
Anxious-Preoccupied / Dismissive-Avoidant Couples: the Silent Treatment
nxious-Preoccupied: Clingy and Insecure Relationship Example
Domestic Violence: Ray and Janay Rice
Malignant Narcissists
Histrionic Personality: Seductive, Dramatic, Theatrical
Life Is Unfair! The Great Chain of Dysfunction Ends With You.
Love Songs of the Secure Attachment Type
On Addiction and the Urge to Rescue
Sale! Sale! Sale! – “Bad Boyfriends” for Kindle, $2.99
Controlling Your Inner Critic: Subpersonalities
“Big Bang Theory” — Aspergers and Emotional/Social Intelligence
Porn Addiction and NoFAP
Introverts in Management


  1. This is a very pertinent point to this ‘study’: An important note here: The study participants, though they’re described as “narcissists,” were not clinically diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder” etc.

    1. Right. They studied only those with strong narcissistic traits but not severe enough for the NPD diagnosis. It’s doubtful if politely asking someone as far gone as an NPD sufferer to identify with another would do much, but someone could do the study….

      1. Such a study would certainly be worth doing, for the sake of knowledge, at least. Politely asking might not do the trick, as you say, but maybe they’ll be able to find other methods or tricks to ease the problems NPD causes.

  2. I think this makes clear the origins of narcissism – a lack of empathic responsiveness from the caregiver in early periods of development. This results literally in the relational wiring not forming and instead, a self structure developing that seeks to at all costs protect the original narcissistic wound (abandonment, rejection or annihilation by the caregiver), at the cost of being connected. Being connected is the luxury of those who were safe in connection – and who experienced being mirrored in consistent and attuned ways. Those that were instead violated in connection have to develop in ways that preclude it happening again. There only way to address narcissism is in extremely relational intersubjective therapy, where the narcissist receives the reparative mirroring and validation that is missing – and develops incrementally, a healthy attachment system.

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