Empathy priming has been explored as a potential strategy to reduce rape myth acceptance. But a study published in Archives of Sexual Behavior suggests that this approach can sometimes backfire. The researchers found that college-aged men with high levels of narcissism actually condoned more problematic beliefs about rape after being encouraged to empathize with a fictional rape victim.
Sexual assault and rape are major issues on college campuses, with women being the most common victims. Sexual violence against women is perpetuated by rape myth acceptance — a set of false beliefs about sexual assault that serve to downplay the experience of victims. Studies have found these beliefs to be higher in male college students compared to the typical population.
In order to combat rape culture, psychology studies have evaluated prevention programs based on empathy priming. While the premise of these programs is that priming people to empathize with rape victims should reduce rape myth acceptance, the evidence of this effect is sparse.
“Rates of rape and sexual assault on college campuses in the United States are staggeringly high; studies estimate that somewhere between 1 in 4 or 1 in 5 women will be raped while in college. And these are the cases that are reported — we also know that most incidents are never reported,” said study author Alexandra D. Long, a PhD candidate at American University and member of the Interpersonal Emotion Laboratory.
“Much of the research literature has focused on victims and risk factors; this is very important work. However, I had questions about the characteristics of perpetrators and the individuals who are more likely to commit sexual assault or rape. We know from federal statistics that that 99% of people who commit rape are men (Rennison, 2002). Additionally, we know that perpetrators of sexual violence tend to be high in narcissistic traits.”
“Narcissism — by definition — involves a lack of empathy, but many existing campus sexual assault prevention programs utilize ’empathy priming’ as a tool to try and increase empathy toward victims of rape and sexual assault,” the researcher explained.
Long and her coauthor Nathaniel R. Herr noted that empathy priming has yet to be tested in a population with high risk of rape myth acceptance, for example, men with high levels of narcissism. The narcissistic reactance theory of rape contends that when a man’s sexual advances are rejected, certain narcissistic qualities increase the likelihood that he will push to get what he wants rather than stop his pursuit. For example, narcissists tend to lack empathy, yearn for admiration, and be highly self-entitled — qualities that could make them more likely to endorse problematic beliefs about rape.
“I wanted to explore what happens when narcissistic individuals are prompted to feel empathy toward a victim of sexual violence,” Long said. “What happens on college campuses when potential perpetrators undergo empathy priming exercises? Might this be a crucial consideration in the public health effort to reduce campus sexual assault rates?”
Long and Herr launched a study to explore the interaction between narcissistic tendencies, empathy priming, and rape myth acceptance among college-aged men. A sample of 74 heterosexual men between the ages of 18 and 25 was recruited from a mid-Atlantic private university in the United States. They first completed a questionnaire assessing two measures of empathy and four subtypes of narcissism — grandiose, vulnerable, pathological, and sexual.
For the experiment, the men were randomly assigned to participate in either the empathy condition or the objective condition. Each group was then presented with a vignette describing a date rape scenario, but received different instructions. The empathy group received instructions asking them to “imagine how the woman feels” and “put yourself in her shoes”, while the objective group was asked to “try to be as objective as possible about the woman” and “try to remain detached.” The students also completed the Rape Myth Acceptance scale, a 22-item self-report scale used to assess problematic beliefs about rape and sexual assault.
“Empathy is the process of understanding and sharing the emotional experience of another person,” Long explained. “Narcissism is a trait that some of us have more or less of in our personalities, in our ways of interacting with the world. Individuals who are more narcissistic than others seem to have a more difficult time with empathy. Individuals who perpetrate sexual violence tend to have higher levels of narcissism and lower levels of empathy than those who do not perpetrate these acts. Rape myth acceptance is the endorsement of false, problematic beliefs about rape and sexual assault. Perpetrators of sexual violence report higher levels of rape myth acceptance, as we may expect.”
The researchers found that participants with higher baseline levels of empathy endorsed lower rape myth acceptance, while participants with higher baseline levels of narcissism endorsed higher rape myth acceptance. Out of the four types of narcissism, sexual narcissism had the strongest ties to rape myth acceptance.
The results further revealed an interaction between empathy priming and narcissism on rape myth acceptance. For men with low vulnerable or pathological narcissism, the empathy condition reduced rape myth acceptance compared to the objective condition. But for men with high vulnerable or pathological narcissism, the empathy condition actually increased rape myth acceptance. For grandiose and sexual narcissism, rape myth acceptance was unaffected by empathy priming.
Worryingly, this suggests that men who were at higher risk of rape myth acceptance — and therefore, rape perpetration — more strongly condoned prejudicial beliefs about rape after being primed to feel empathy toward a fictional rape victim.
“Our study showed that empathy priming was associated with decreased rape myth acceptance among college males lower in narcissistic traits,” Long told PsyPost. “So, for the men who already have a lower risk of perpetrating sexual violence, this ’empathy priming’ technique was helpful at further reducing their risk of perpetration. The men higher in narcissistic traits, however, when asked to feel empathy for a rape victim, reported significantly higher levels of rape myth acceptance than those in the ‘objective’ group (not primed for empathy). This implies that using ’empathy priming’ based interventions among college men who are already at a higher risk of committing sexual violence could exacerbate that risk.”
“The key takeaway: colleges who use empathy priming programs for campus sexual assault prevention may consider first measuring students’ personality traits, and not administering the intervention to individuals who are high in narcissism,” Long said. “Alternatively, campuses may consider doing away with the empathy priming method altogether and instead implementing an objective/fact-based education program (i.e., providing students with evidence-based information about sexual violence and its consequences). This would likely work better with the individuals who are more likely to become perpetrators.”
The study, like all research, includes some limitations. “First, our sample was from a mid-sized, private university on the East Coast,” Long explained. “We did not include any LGBTQ+ individuals in the study; participants were heterosexual, cisgender male college students. We did not ask participants whether they have committed or been victims of sexual violence. So, the data from our sample may not be generalizable to other populations, and we did not assess self-reported perpetration rates.
“Many issues have yet to be addressed,” Long continued. “Our study did not focus on other known correlates of sexual assault, such as alcohol use, cognition of consent, previous perpetration, childhood sexual abuse, or antisocial personality traits, though there are other hardworking researchers who do study these constructs. While there is growing evidence of the disparate outcomes of sexual violence among sexual and gender minority populations, we did not examine how the patterns identified in our data may play out among these marginalized groups.”
“Finally, narcissism is gravely understudied in the research literature,” the researcher added. “There is still a lot we do not understand about the development, behavior, interpersonal impacts, and psychosocial outcomes of individuals who have high levels of narcissistic traits. With our current understanding of the personal and societal harms associated with narcissism, it is imperative to continue studying this construct so that we may better understand how to intervene.”
Despite the need for future research, the new findings point to the importance of including personality measures in future sexual assault intervention studies. Additionally, the results have implications for the development of prevention programs on college campuses.
“Narcissism is not taking a lot of selfies or hoping for high view counts on your social media posts,” Long said. “Narcissism is a personality trait that, at a certain intensity level and together with many other factors, can contribute to mental health issues such as narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), and can substantially impact the well-being of individuals and those around them. If you are worried about the mental health of yourself or a loved one and are seeking help, reach out to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) or https://www.samhsa.gov/.”
“If you have experienced sexual violence and are seeking help or would like more information, call the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) at 1-800-656-4673 from anywhere in the U.S., or chat with someone online via https://hotline.rainn.org/online.”
The study, “Narcissism, Empathy, and Rape Myth Acceptance Among Heterosexual College Males”, was authored by Alexandra D. Long and Nathaniel R. Herr.