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The University of Southampton

Narcissists can be encouraged to be empathetic, according to new research at Southampton

Published: 18 July 2014

Research involving academics from Psychology at the University of Southampton suggests that subclinical narcissists can elicit empathy for another person’s suffering if you ask them to. Narcissists are driven by a need to get ahead and feel superior to others, but lack motivation to get along and care about others.

"Narcissists are characterised by their low empathy – the ability to taking another’s perspective and feeling compassion for them – which is a key ingredient of a harmonious society” says Dr Claire Hart from Southampton, who researches self and identity. “Empathic individuals are more likely to help, volunteer, and donate to charity; are less likely to bully, behave aggressively, and commit crime; and are better equipped to negotiate relationship difficulties."

In a series of studies, Dr Hart and Professor Constantine Sedikides at Southampton, with Dr Erica Hepper at the University of Surrey, showed that narcissists respond to a person undergoing an emotional experience (relationship break-up, domestic violence) with low empathy, compared to non-narcissists. However, simply instructing narcissists to take the perspective of the empathic target, to “put themselves in the target’s shoes”, resulted in narcissists reporting significantly higher empathy levels than when they had not been prompted with such instructions.

A further study explored the physical capacity to feel empathy, as increases in heart rate are associated with feeling empathy for another person. While listening to an audio blog of someone describing their recent relationship break-up, narcissists showed a significantly lower heart-rate than non-narcissists. However, when researchers asked the narcissists to take the perspective of the subject, their heart rate rose to the same level as the non-narcissists.

"This is the first time that research has shown that narcissists can be empathic; they just choose not to be. This is promising news as it implies that their behaviour is modifiable,” explains Dr Hart, who is now investigating ways of making empathy desirable to the narcissist. “Encouraging narcissists to be more empathic in their everyday lives will have benefits for them, those close to them, and society at large."

A press release outlining the research, published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin,has been featured in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Chicago Tribune and New York Magazine and many other media outlets.

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