The Greeks seemed to understand human nature better than any other culture before or since. Take, for example, Narcissus, the hunter who was both beautiful and proud… to a fault. Seeking to correct his un-pretty nature, the goddess Nemesis lured him to a pool and there Narcissus saw his reflection for the first time. Immediately, he fell in love with the beauty of his own image and found himself incapable of parting with it. Thus, Narcissus died staring at himself. Hundreds of years later, psychologists adopted his name to refer to people with unnaturally inflated egos — the attention-seeking, shallow folks who sneakily take credit for success that is not theirs while blaming others for their failures.

Contrary to their usual bad reputations, though, low-level narcissists can feel empathy for another person's suffering, psychologists at the University of Surrey recently discovered, and the reason for their self-obsessed and anti-social behavior is not an inability to feel. "The present findings demonstrate that narcissists’ low empathy does not reflect inability,” wrote the authors in their new study; yet, they could not “tease apart whether [narcissists'] low empathy reflects a relative skill deficit (e.g., they cannot empathize unless they exert effort), lack of motivation (e.g., low communal concern), or motivation to avoid empathizing (e.g., it allows them to exploit the other person, self-enhance, or show off).”

What is narcissistic personality disorder?

There are everyday narcissists — yep, that person in your office who finds a way to bend every conversation to focus on herself — and then there are people who are diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder. The difference between the two remains somewhat unclear, the researchers from University of Surrey state in their published study. Still, research demonstrates that people high in narcissism react aggressively to criticism or rejection, unduly deplete common resources, game-play in romantic relationships, and engage in exploitative behavior. More importantly, they are also more likely to commit criminal acts and be incarcerated. Most importantly, narcissists may be socially attractive at first acquaintance, but the shine wears off all too soon; others in their social circle eventually end up disliking narcissists, while long-term romantic partners become dissatisfied with their game-playing ways.

Experiments

For the current study, a team of researchers led by Dr. Erica Hepper, a lecturer at the University of Surrey, analyzed the behavior of participants in three different situations. They recruited these study subjects, who were resident in the UK, the U.S., Canada, and 17 other countries, online via research websites. Most were students (86 percent), with the remainder employed (11 percent), unemployed (two percent) or home-makers (one percent). In the first experiment, participants rated on a scale of one to eight how much empathy they felt for someone suffering from a relationship break-up. The results showed that those with high narcissism lacked empathy for the distressed person. In a second experiment, half the participants were specifically asked to imagine how a woman who had suffered domestic violence feels. The results showed that individuals high in narcissism were capable of empathy when they took another person's perspective.

Things began to heat up during the third and final experiment. This time, the researchers timed participants' heartbeats as they listened to an audio blog of a character suffering from a break-up. (It is known that increases in heart rate indicate an empathic response.) The researchers discovered that the narcissists had significantly lower heart-rates than non-narcissistic participants. However, when they were specifically instructed to see things from the character's perspective, the narcissists' heart-rates increased to the same levels as participants with very low narcissistic tendencies.

"Our results clearly show that if we encourage narcissists to consider the situation from their teammate or friend's point-of-view, they are likely to respond in a much more considerate and sympathetic way," Hepper stated in a press release.

Why is this important? Well, according to Hepper, narcissism is increasing around the world. (Kimye, anyone?) “If narcissists have the physical capacity to feel empathy,” she said, “interventions could be designed to help them do so in their everyday lives, with benefits to themselves, their family, friends and colleagues and for society as a whole."

 

Source: Hepper EG, Hart CM, Sedikides C. Moving Narcissisus: Can Narcissists be Empathic? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 2014.