Study on charitable giving finds narcissists can be induced to exhibit compassion for others

New research published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggests there is a way to evoke charitable behavior in narcissistic individuals.

“Narcissism has often been characterized by egocentrism and a lack of empathy,” said study author Esther Kang, a professor of consumer psychology at the University of Cologne.

“We raise the intriguing possibility that a narcissistic individual can be a benevolent donor when he/she is more easily able to imagine oneself the scene of need. In doing so, although the prior literature on narcissism has focused on antisocial behaviors, this research highlights the prosocial consequences of narcissism.”

In four separate studies, with more than 1,000 participants in total, the researchers found that the power of perspective could influence narcissistic individuals.

“In this research, we show that some types of charitable campaigns which encourage donors to mentally simulate the recipient’s circumstance may have a stronger positive effect on higher narcissism donors. These appeals were framed in one of two forms, ‘imagine-recipient’ or ‘imagine-self,'” Kang explained to PsyPost.

“While the imagine-recipient appeal simply asks donors to imagine the recipient and his/her circumstances, the imagine-self appeal asks donors to explicitly put him or herself into the recipient’s circumstances and simulate the situation as if the donor were the recipient. We find that high-narcissism donors are more fluent in imagining when exposed to an imagine-self appeal which in turn, appears to elicit empathy and lead to greater charitable outcomes (relative to an imagine-recipient appeal).”

The researchers also examined how likely narcissistic individuals were feel and show genuine empathy.

“Having a strong egocentric perspective, high-narcissism individuals do not respond well to an appeal that asks them to ‘see through someone else’s eyes’ due to their relative difficulty in imagining another’s emotions and needs,” Kang said.

“In contrast, imagine-self types of appeals allow potential high-narcissism donors to project themselves into the scene in need — ‘standing in someone else’s shoes’ — and vicariously experience the negative emotions that a recipient in a state of distress or misfortune. This leads to eliciting genuine concern and as a consequence, more other-centered behaviors.”

However, the study has some limitations.

“There are boundary conditions of the effect of self-projection,” Kang explained. “In this research, we demonstrate that when imagining oneself as the recipient is inordinately difficult, for example becoming an animal or another gender suffering from a gender-specific cancer, projecting oneself is very difficult or impossible and in turn, the imagine-self appeal is less effective.”

“Although this research uncovers the prosocial consequences of narcissism and the intrinsic motivation driven by imagination-based appeals, it is possible that socially desirable responding can significantly affect high-narcissism individuals to display overt responses due to societal norms of “good” behavior, especially in public contexts (i.e., social networking sites). Future research could further examine what types of charitable causes may stimulate donor’s self-presentation motivation and how it can interact with narcissism and consequently lead to charitable consequences.”

The findings have real-world implications for charitable organizations.

“This research illuminates that in situations where potential donors may not have strong personal and social connections with recipients, charitable appeals that use donors’ personal imagery can help enhance their charitable giving, particularly for high-narcissism donors. Thus, the right kind of self-referenced imagery could offer charities a viable and highly effective method of engaging high-narcissism donors,” Kang told PsyPost.

“We suggest that tools that enhance this process, for example, vivid pictures that explicate the recipient’s emotional narrative or first-person stories that more richly engage donors’ imagination, may help better engage high-narcissism donors.”

The study, “Narcissism and Self- Versus Recipient-Oriented Imagery in Charitable Giving“, was authored by Esther Kang and Arun Lakshmanan.