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Narcissists Can Feel Empathy, Study Finds

Update Date: May 30, 2014 09:27 AM EDT

Narcissism is a trait characterized by feeling an excessive sense of self-importance. Narcissists are often described as selfish people who are not empathetic. In a new study, researchers set out to see if this stereotype is real. The team from the University of Surrey discovered that narcissists can feel empathy if taught how to.

"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," said lead author, Dr. Erica Hepper from the University of Surrey. "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 this study, the researchers created three different situations for their participants to go through. In the first one, the participants were asked to rate how much empathy they felt for someone of the same gender who recently experienced a relationship break-up. The rating scale was from one to eight. In this situation, the narcissists did not exhibit any empathy.

In the second part of the study, the researchers told 50 percent of the participants to imagine how a woman who has suffered from domestic violence feels. In this scenario, the team found that people high in narcissism were capable of feeling empathy when they were instructed specifically to take the other person's point of view.

The third part of the study measured the participants' heartbeats as they were listening to an audio blog about an individual who just went through a breakup. . An elevated heartbeat would indicate empathetic emotions. The researchers found that narcissists had a lower heartbeat when compared to the heartbeat of the non-narcissistic individuals. The participants were then asked to imagine the subject's perspective. Now, the heartbeats of the narcissists increased to the similar levels recorded in people with low narcissistic tendencies.

"Our research provides a crucial breakthrough, as other studies suggest narcissism is increasing across cultures. 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," Dr. Hepper said according to the press release.

The study was published in the journal, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

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