Narcissists are less likely to feel empathy, less likely to make personal sacrifices to help the greater good , and more likely to act aggressively toward others. If we experience these individuals in our own lives, we may try to ignore or avoid them if at all possible. But what about when you are stuck working alongside someone high in narcissism on a work or school project? What can we do, if anything, to help these individuals develop more empathy and become more likely to help those in need?
Recent experimental research by Hepper, Hart, and Sedkides tested whether it was possible to influence narcissists to actually feel empathy toward others. The researchers found that asking narcissists to explicitly take the perspective of a suffering person actually helped the narcissists experience stronger feelings of empathy toward that individual. In the experimental study, some individuals were told that they were going to watch a brief documentary about a domestic abuse case, but before watching the video they were asked to think about the feelings of the domestic assault victim while watching the video. Other participants in the study were not assigned to this perspective taking task while watching the documentary.
In another study, the researchers tested to make sure narcissists weren’t just saying that they felt more empathy. They did this by measuring each participant’s heart rate (i.e., autonomic arousal), which is more likely to increase when people feel empathy toward another person’s suffering. This time, if narcissists were explicitly told to take another person’s perspective, maladaptive narcissists were more likely to both report greater empathy, and also experience a greater increase in heart rate, at least suggesting that these individuals were more physiologically-aroused, and not just stating that they felt stronger emotion (in this case, empathy).
This research provides some evidence that when explicitly asked to focus on the plight of another, narcissists report greater empathy toward another suffering individual, and even experience an increase in their heart rate. However, the social sciences are complex, and additional questions always remain. Do these changes in self-reported empathy and heart rate lead to actual changes in behavior? How long might this increase in empathy last? Does this sort of intervention lead narcissists to feel empathy toward others generally, or just toward the specific target person that they are focusing on? What is the best way to kindly ask a narcissist in your life to take another person's perspective?
What do you think?
* Don’t worry, the irony of reporting this research on my personal website does not evade me.
** I got a 15 out of 40, what did you get?