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May 30, 2014 10:53 AM EDT

Narcissists May Be Able To Feel Empathy

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People who are narcissists tend to lack empathy, which can cause problems for themselves, the people around them and society in general. However, researchers from the University of Surrey found that with the right focus, people with narcissistic tendencies can feel empathy for another person's suffering.

Researchers said their findings may be important in helping to prevent the often violent or anti-social behaviors that some narcissists are prone to and the crimes that are committed as a result.

"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," Dr. Erica Hepper, lead author of the study, said in a statement. "This is not only good for the people around them, but also for their own wellbeing in the long-run as empathy helps to form and maintain close relationships."

For the study, researchers examined volunteers in three different situations.

The first experiment analyzed how sympathetic they were to someone of their own gender suffering from a relationship break-up. Asked to rate on a scale of 1 to 8 how much empathy they felt, the results showed that those with high narcissism lacked empathy for the distressed person.

However, in the second experiment, which focused on a woman who had suffered domestic violence from a male perpetrator, half of participants were specifically asked to imagine how that person feels. The results showed that individuals high in narcissism were capable of higher empathy when instructed to take that person's perspective.

In the third experiment, the researchers tested this result via the participants' heartbeats, as increases in heart rate are known to indicate an empathic response to other people's emotions and suffering. When listening to an audio blog of someone suffering from a relationship break-up, narcissists showed a significantly lower heart-rate than non-narcissistic participants. However, when asked to take the character's perspective, the narcissists' heart-rates increased to the same levels as those with very low narcissistic tendencies.

"Our research provides a crucial breakthrough, as other studies suggest narcissism is increasing across cultures," Hepper said. "If narcissists have the physical capacity to feel empathy, 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."

The findings were recently published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

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