Narcissism can promote less biased decision-making under some circumstances, according to new research published in the journal Self and Identity. The study provides new insights into how narcissistic personality traits are related to empathy, trust, and morality.
“The relationship between narcissism and empathy has been studied before, and many scholars consider ‘lack of empathy’ to be a core feature of narcissistic personalities,” said study author Pascal Burgmer, an assistant professor at the University of Kent.
“We were interested in this topic because we anticipated that experiencing social trust (vs. distrust) might allow those with narcissistic personalities to feel more empathy than they otherwise would. In addition, sometimes experiencing empathy can make us biased in our treatment of others, and we might give people preferential treatment when we empathize with them.
“We thought that it would be fascinating to show that under these circumstances, narcissism will lead to less biased treatment of others, because narcissists primarily care about themselves, and their lack of empathy therefore does not motivate them to prefer any other person in particular. In that regard, they are more likely to treat other people similarly.”
Burgmer and his colleagues examined trait narcissism rather than clinical narcissistic personality disorder. Trait narcissism “is not binary, but a continuous” variable, he explained. “People score lower or higher on certain components of narcissism, and these can have positive or negative effects.”
In addition, the researchers were interested in two subtypes of trait narcissism: narcissistic admiration and narcissistic rivalry.
Narcissistic admiration is characterized by grandiosity and charmingness, while narcissistic rivalry is characterized by aggressiveness and asserting supremacy. People high in narcissistic admiration tend to agree with statements such as “I deserve to be seen as a great personality,” while those high in narcissistic rivalry tend to agree with statements such as “I can barely stand it if another person is at the center of events.”
In their first study, 301 U.S. adults completed an assessment of narcissism before reading four short scenarios about a close friend experiencing positive or negative events. The researchers found evidence that narcissistic rivalry — but not narcissistic admiration — buffered the emotional impact of reading about the negative events.
Most participants felt sadness after reading about their friend suffering a negative event and happiness after reading about their friend experiencing a positive event. Those high in narcissistic rivalry also tended to feel sadness after reading about their friend suffering, but their mood was not as negative as those low in rivalry.
“These negative target experiences thus did not make them happy (as one would expect in the case of schadenfreude), but rather less unhappy (or relatively more happy) compared to participants with low values on rivalry,” the researchers explained.
In their second study, which included 381 U.S. adults, the researchers found that increased trust weakened the negative relationship between narcissism and empathy. Narcissistic participants who wrote about a time in their lives where they trusted someone else tended score higher on a measure of empathy compared to narcissistic participants who wrote about a time in their lives when they distrusted someone.
“The more antagonistic kind of narcissism (called rivalry) is particularly associated with a lack of empathy, as opposed to the more agentic kind of narcissism (called admiration). However, increasing trust can buffer against this lack of empathy,” Burgmer told PsyPost.
In their third and final study, which included 329 German university students, the researchers examined how narcissism influenced moral decisions.
The participants were shown a photo of a four-year-old girl named Carla in a hospital bed with medical equipment attached to her. They were told that Carla was suffering from a fatal metabolic disease, which would likely result in her death within the coming weeks, and that medical professionals were trying to make her remaining time as comfortable as possible.
They then read about an organization that offered special assistance to terminally ill children and their families. The organization sometimes offered preferential treatment to certain patients. Due to budget restraints, however, this preferential treatment occurred at the expense of other children.
In line with the previous studies, the researchers found that those high in narcissistic rivalry showed decreased empathy towards Carla. They were also less likely to believe that Carla deserved special treatment at the expense of other sick children.
“Sometimes we don’t want empathy to cloud our judgments, so that we don’t end up preferring some people who we empathize with over others. A spotlight on the self which decreases empathy for others, as is typical for narcissists, can lead to less biased judgments under these circumstances,” Burgmer told PsyPost.
But the study — like all research — includes some caveats.
“One issue stems from how scholars define and measure empathy. There are many different facets of empathy, for example, the more cognitive component, the more affective component, or related concepts such as compassion,” Burgmer explained.
“In our studies, we assessed all of these. We found that (antagonistic) narcissism seems to be related primarily to a decreased tendency of feeling what others feel (affective component of empathy) and decreased concern for others (compassion), and not so much an inability to understand what others are feeling (cognitive component of empathy).”
“However, more research is needed to fully understand how the various components of narcissism relate to these different facets of empathy, and what the psychological processes are that might be responsible for these relationships,” Burgmer added. “For example, while our work shows initial evidence that trust may serve as a buffer of some of the antisocial (i.e., empathy-decreasing) effects of narcissism, more research in this area could investigate why this seems to be the case.”
The study, “I don’t feel ya: How narcissism shapes empathy“, was authored by Pascal Burgmer, Alexa Weiss, and Katharina Ohmann.