science of us

Can We Train Narcissists Not to Be Such Jerks?

Photo: Lionsgate Films

The term narcissist has burrowed so deep into the collective consciousness that it’s become a cheap insult to hurl at a friend or loved one temporarily acting like a jerk. But genuine narcissists — that is, people with strong tendencies toward attention-seeking, selfishness, and exploitation — are incredibly difficult to deal with, and there are both interpersonal and societal consequences. A new study, published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, suggests there might be ways to attack the root deficiency motivating a lot of their behavior: a lack of empathy for other people.

It consists of three experiments designed to test whether those with high levels of subclinical narcissism (that is, narcissistic tendencies that don’t rise to the level of narcissistic personality disorder, a recognized mental disorder) can, if properly prodded, up their empathy games. The first experiment simply demonstrated, as expected, that people with narcissistic tendencies (as revealed by a personality inventory) reported lower empathy for a hypothetical victim of misfortune, but the second and third pointed to possible interventions.

In the second, a group of subjects watched a short documentary about a victim of domestic abuse. The researchers found that “high-narcissists reported significantly higher empathy” for her when they were specifically asked to take her perspective, as compared to a control group simply instructed to watch the video. (Among non-narcissistic subjects, on the other hand, there was no difference in reported empathy between the control and perspective-taking groups, which suggests, as the researchers put it, that they were “already taking [the victim’s] perspective.”)

To guard against the possibility that the narcissists were simply reporting higher empathy because they thought it was what was expected of them, the final experiment conducted a similar test that measured autonomous arousal — that is, whether the narcissist’s bodies reacted the way human bodies tend to when we genuinely feel empathy. Narcissists in the perspective-taking group did indeed show signs of a genuinely empathic response.

This is an early line of research, the authors note, and since these experiments focused specifically on “suffering that concerned close relationships,” there’s no way to know how generalizable the results are. Still, it offers an early, intriguing sign that down the road we may have some good options for those stuck in close proximity to a narcissist.

Can We Train Narcissists Not to Be Such Jerks?