According to a recent study conducted by researchers from the University of Southampton and the University of Surrey, some patients diagnosed with ‘subclinical’ levels of narcissism are capable of exhibiting empathy. Such patients were not diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder; the researchers argued that there are subclinical varieties of narcissism that allow such people to function on a high (oftentimes very high) level within society.
For the purposes of this research, the researchers focused on individuals who exhibit subclinical narcissism, rather than a clinical diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). Dr. Hepper explains that this distinction was made because “people high in subclinical narcissism are psychologically healthy and well-adjusted, often even very successful, whereas people with NPD are inflexible and volatile, and don’t manage day-to-day life well.” Subclinical narcissism is also more common, and the number of people exhibiting narcissistic traits in our society continues to increase. The participants were broken down into two categories, ‘low narcissists’ and ‘high narcissists,’ which identifies participants as being less narcissistic or more narcissistic than the average person.
In other words, we can be narcissistic without necessarily being diagnosable with narcissistic personality disorder. “High” narcissists whose narcissism is nonetheless not clinically significant enough to warrant a diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder, for example, did not show sympathy for a former significant other following a breakup, according to the researchers. This tendency was pervasive, the researchers said, such that “narcissists lacked empathy even when the scenario was relatively severe (i.e., the subject was overwhelmed with depression”.
The researchers then tested whether narcissists are capable of showing empathy when they are instructed to take the perspective of the target person. Female participants were shown a 10-minute documentary describing a woman’s experience with domestic violence. Participants were prompted to “imagine how she feels” while watching the video. Low-narcissists were unaffected by the cognitive-perspective taking, implying they were already taking the woman’s perspective. High-narcissists reported significantly higher empathy for the woman in the video when they had been instructed to take her perspective, versus not being prompted with that suggestion.
Lastly, the researchers tested whether narcissists can be moved, not just emotionally, but also physiologically. Previous studies have shown that increases in heart rate reliably indicate empathetic response to another’s emotions or suffering. High-narcissists had a significantly lower heart rate when exposed to a target character’s distress, illustrating that their lack of empathy is also physiological. However, perspective-taking led high-narcissists to respond to another’s distress with the same level of autonomic arousal as low-narcissists.
Researchers concluded that even narcissistic people can exhibit empathy under the right conditions. According to Dr. Hepper, one of the researchers involved, “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 or sympathetic way.”