Can a narcissist feel your pain? (Maybe yes, study suggests)

Can narcissists be counseled to feel the pain and distress of others? If so, how does this relate to addressing bullying at work?

Tom Jacobs, writing for the Pacific Standard, reports on a set of university experiments about narcissists:

In three experiments, a team led by University of Surrey psychologist Erica Hepper provides evidence that, under the right conditions, narcissists can indeed be moved by the suffering of others.

“Although it appears that narcissists’ low empathy is relatively automatic … there is potential for change,” the researchers write in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Among other things, the experiments tested whether those with narcissistic tendencies could generate sympathy for “Susan,” a victim of domestic violence, as presented in a short documentary film:

“(T)hose with narcissistic tendencies ‘reported significantly higher empathy for Susan when they had been instructed to take her perspective,’ the researchers write. Simply being told to see things from her point of view—something that does not come naturally for narcissists—allowed them to step outside themselves and feel something for her.”

The researchers didn’t stop with self-reported responses. Using an audio taped factual scenario of someone describing a painful romantic breakup, and attaching their study subjects to monitors that measured heart rates, they found a marked physiological response when the subjects were asked to take the character’s perspective.

Narcissism and workplace bullying

Narcissism has long been associated with toxic leadership. It also is a quality often ascribed to those who engage in workplace bullying. This study suggests that some aggressors at work — at least those whose actions are fueled by narcissistic tendencies — could be effectively counseled or coached in ways that would reduce their harmful behaviors towards co-workers.

Of course, it’s not as easy as saying, you’re a narcissistic manager who engages in workplace bullying, so get some help or lose your job. After all, many organizations that harbor workplace aggressors tend to defend, validate, and sometimes even encourage their behaviors. Workplace bullying, after all, is typically fueled by negative organizational cultures.

Nevertheless, this study suggests that some narcissistic workers may respond when asked to walk in the shoes of those on the receiving end of their behaviors. Thus, in addition to helping targets of workplace bullying, perhaps we can change some of their tormenters.

2 responses

  1. Asking a narcissist to listen to a victim (whom they don’t know) of domestic violence and consider her perspective is one thing. It’s a whole other thing asking the narcissist to do the same thing with a co-worker or subordinate – people they do know and most likely perceive as a means (or threat) to a desired or expected outcome. Vast difference.

    I’d rather see the energy and efforts put toward the systemic issues.

  2. I think some narcissistic bullying individuals can feel the pain they inflict on their victims…and have enough of a masochistic streak to enjoy it.

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