Are narcissists ever interested in this?

Everyone knows these contemporaries: They mostly revolve around themselves, they hardly interest other people. And they are even less concerned about what others think of them. Narcissists have a one-sided understanding of themselves and the world. They are indifferent to what is not directly related to their thinking and feeling, compassion is not an option. All the more surprising are the findings of British psychologists that they have received in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin from today's Saturday (vol. 40, p. 8, 2014). Accordingly, narcissists can be empathetic and feel empathy - if you give them a little help.

The researchers led by Erica Hepper from the University of Surrey examined almost 300 volunteers who showed strong narcissistic traits, "but were psychologically healthy and often even very successful," says the study director. This form of subclinical narcissism is common and there is evidence that this personality structure is becoming more common. In contrast, people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder have difficulty coping with everyday life. They are often inflexible, suffer from breakups and turning away from friends.

First, the narcissists learned vividly about the end of a relationship. But no matter how dramatically the partnership broke up, the narcissists could not feel any empathy. That did not change even when the abandoned fell into depression and suffered extremely.

In another attempt, women were shown a ten-minute video in which a woman was a victim of domestic violence. When the narcissistic participants were asked to "imagine how the abused woman was feeling," they felt compassionate. Narcissists who were not encouraged to put themselves in the victim's perspective, however, remained indifferent in front of the screen.

The capacity for compassion is quite common - only the willingness for it is not

In order to get to the bottom of their observation, the British scientists recorded the heart rate and other physiological parameters that provide information about how close the test subjects were to the events they were observing. Here the observation made earlier was confirmed: among narcissists, the heart rate did not increase when they witnessed another person suffering or falling into grief. Other characteristics of a sympathetic stress reaction were also not observed in them. On the other hand, those who were encouraged to take the position of the victim also showed a physical response of compassion.

"When we encourage narcissists to look at the situation from the point of view of their colleagues or friends, they often respond appropriately and even sympathetically to the suffering of others," says Hepper. "It's not only nicer for the people around you, but also in the long term for their own well-being and for the durability of their relationships." This can only be beneficial for society, because although many narcissists are satisfied with themselves, they cause a lot of anger and unrest as colleagues or among friends. Those who suffer from a strong form of narcissism are also more prone to violent behavior and other crimes.

Just recently, Dutch neuroscientists Christian Keysers and Valeria Gazzola showed that even psychopaths can be taught compassion (Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Vol. 18, p. 4, 2014). The brain centers in which compassion and compassion are processed are hardly active when they see people who are ill. However, if they were asked to be empathetic ("Try to feel how the other is doing"), they not only showed more empathy, but the corresponding brain areas also showed the typical arousal patterns.