Can Narcissists Experience Empathy? Yes, But They'd Rather Not

mindbodygreen Editorial Assistant By Sarah Regan
mindbodygreen Editorial Assistant

Sarah Regan is a writer, registered yoga instructor, and Editorial Assistant at mindbodygreen. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from SUNY Oswego, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Narcissists Are Able To Empathize, Study Finds, But They Just Don't

Image by LILIYA RODNIKOVA / Stocksy

From gaslighting to being controlling, as we learn more about what makes a narcissist, it makes them easier to identify.

And that applies to psychopaths and Machiavellians too (the three make up what is known as the "dark triad"). One common trait among dark triad personalities is a lack of empathy, which was what prompted a collaborative study out of three Swedish universities that looked at whether people's cognitive ability to empathize would affect whether they actually did empathize in real life.

According to their findings, there's reason to believe narcissists, psychopaths, and Machiavellians can, in fact, empathize—they just don't.

Disposition, not ability, matters.

As the study explains, empathy is the ability and disposition to imagine another's experience, and it's intrinsic to emotional intelligence.

In their study of 278 participants, researchers used an anonymous online survey to ask questions about personality and empathy.

Dark personalities, they found, had no difference in ability-based empathy. But when it came to "trait-based" empathy, or empathy that was displayed, dark personalities saw a negative connection, suggesting they didn't have the disposition for empathy.

To explain further, darker personalities were found to agree with statements like "Other people's misfortunes don't usually disturb me," despite being able to identify someone else's emotions in the Multifaceted Empathy Test.

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Understanding dark personalities.

Petri Kajonius, associate professor of psychology at University West, Sweden, told PsyPost, "There seems to be so many misunderstandings about 'normal' psychopaths among us."

It's not that they can't empathize, Kajonius says; they just "score low in their dispositions to do so[...] In other words, psychopaths, Machiavellians, and narcissists in the common population don't care much about other people's feelings but still have the ability to."

And it should also be noted that this study used subjects online who weren't necessarily clinically diagnosed dark triad personalities. "These results don't inform us on clinical samples[...] Furthermore, the study rests on a rather small sample and the trait scales are based on self-reported questionnaire items." So, more research is necessary to understand whether varying degrees of dark personality yield varying degrees of empathy.

Remember, some research says narcissists may not be forever, but in the meantime, if you think you might be dealing with a dark personality, here are 14 ways to tell. And if you're dating one, here's what you can do.

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