Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Narcissists can be taught to empathise

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

-further reading-
Arrogant, moi? Investigating narcissists' insight into their traits, behaviour and reputation
Student narcissists prefer Twitter; more mature narcissists favour Facebook
For group creativity, two narcissists are better than one

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.


Rolf Degen said...

Where is the practical significance? I also know of studies that seem to prove that sociopaths can be taught empathy. So what? In both personality types, the core mechanism is A LACK OF THE MOTIVATION to become emphatic. Otherwise, life would have long given them the ability. I spoke with one researcher in the field and he confessed that you would practically have to pay these people money for a life time to take these lessons. And, by the way, they might simply cheat.

Per Charlzzon said...

Very well put Rolf Degen. Silly paper. If they change during the exercise and that is not changing how they interact in real life, so what? Are these researchers even clinicians who have been working with narcissists or are they superficial career researchers that will thrive in presenting trivial research to pester clinicians?

Rolf Degen said...

Looking into this stuff, I found it has even more problems than I thought at first glance. The "therapeutic" effect only worked for a subgroup, the grand narcissists:

"It bears mention that perspective-taking instructions.... decreased empathy and HR for low-narcissists in our studies, implying that making explicit a process that is typically natural and automatic may have interfered with its efficacy."

That smells as if it would not survive any scrutiny by the Brian Nosek replication crew.

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