Who knew Atticus Finch was so prescient about narcissism?
"You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it," the hero of Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" tells his daughter, Scout.
A new study in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin finds that coaching narcissists to adopt the perspective of others — to climb into their skin — can actually help build empathy.
"Narcissists can be moved by another's suffering if they take that person's perspective," write the authors. "The findings demonstrate that narcissists' low empathy does not reflect inability, implying potential for intervention."
Researchers at the University of Surrey in the United Kingdom gathered volunteers from the United States, Canada, the U.K. and 17 other countries and gave them a 41-question personality quiz to assess their levels of narcissism. (Though none of the participants was clinically diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder, the quiz sussed out which ones would be less capable of empathy.)
They showed the participants a 10-minute documentary about Susan, a domestic abuse victim. Half were told to "imagine how Susan feels" and to "try to take her perspective in the video." The other half were told to just imagine they were watching the documentary on TV.
Both groups rated their empathy afterward. The participants who were instructed to imagine how Susan felt were significantly more likely to score high on empathy than the other group.
Selfishly (narcissistically?), I take these findings as validation for all the marital and parental discussions I start with, "Think how I feel when you …"
It may be annoying, but at least I have research on my side.
"Now that we have shown that narcissists are capable of adopting another person's perspective and feeling empathy," lead researcher Erica Hepper told me, "our next task is to explore ways to make this effect longer-lasting so that they respond empathically as a matter of course rather than needing continual reminders."
(And so their loved ones can stop starting discussions with, "Think how I feel when you …")
But was it really a brand-new notion to these participants, I wondered, to look at a situation from someone else's perspective? Isn't that a variation on the golden rule we all started hearing in preschool?
"We can all think of the golden rule as a general philosophy for life, and a narcissist may not disagree," Hepper said. "But that doesn't mean that we necessarily consider the other person's perspective in the heat of the moment. When we come across someone who is upset or having a tough time, it takes more than the golden rule to really empathize with that person — we need to consider and understand what they are truly experiencing, not how we would want to be treated in that situation."
Good point. Still. None of them read "To Kill a Mockingbird"?
"Although our study participants may well have been told to put themselves in another person's shoes in the past by parents or teachers, our findings show that those who are highly narcissistic don't naturally apply this principle when they come across someone in distress," she said.
But they're capable of it, according to this research. And that's good news.
So once they get the hang of it, can they keep it up?
"We are testing ways to make perspective-taking more intrinsically appealing to narcissists," Hepper said. "So that they are motivated to use it in their everyday lives and can become more empathic people.
"Narcissists don't deliberately hide their feelings or just care less about how they appear to the researcher," she said. "They genuinely fail to feel what the other person is feeling. This makes our findings all the more important as we know that taking the other person's perspective causes a real change in narcissists' physical reaction, and they are really being moved to experience empathy."
I think Atticus Finch would approve.