Let’s start right at the beginning.

Narcissism has fascinated us for at least two millennia. The myth of Narcissus is rather tragic and goes as far back as 43 B.C. – 17 A.D. Narcissus was a handsome youth whose love was sought by many men and women, but his pride was so fierce that no one was ever good enough. His demeanor hurt and destroyed many hearts. Eventually, Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection that he saw in a pond. He was so infatuated by what he saw that he was unable to pull himself away, waning and slowly dying. He was sent to Hell, but even there he found a pond to gaze in. The myth of Narcissus illustrates the many difficulties that someone with narcissism and those around them may have to deal with on a daily basis.

In psychology today, it is generally agreed that narcissism is a personality trait and people can range widely in how narcissistic they are. At its most severe, a person’s behavior can meet the diagnostic criteria for a Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

Low empathy has been proposed as one of the reasons behind narcissists’ hurtful and callous behavior. And that is not surprising given the 2000-year-old myth of Narcissus, personal experiences, and clinical descriptions. However, what is surprising is that the scientific literature has not been able to consistently link the two together.

What Is Empathy, Anyway?

One of the main reasons causing this is disagreement about what empathy really is. Empathy is a broad term that means different things to different people. (See a Character and Context blog, “Empathy: A Word with Too Many Meanings” and “What is Empathy? You Thought You Knew.”) So, we will clarify how we defined the term “empathy” in our research.  

Empathy is comprised of two components: one, termed Cognitive Empathy, mainly refers to thoughts about other people’s emotions, and the other, termed Affective Empathy, involves feeling others’ emotions—one might say these two encompass both “head” and “heart.” To illustrate, for someone to be empathic, they must be able to recognize and understand other people’s emotions (Cognitive Empathy) and to feel them (Affective Empathy). For example, when you see someone in distress, you instantly recognize and understand that they are sad, and at the same time, you start to feel sad yourself.

Given the complexities involved in studying “empathy,” we examined the narcissism-empathy link separately for these two empathy components. Do narcissistic individuals struggle to understand others’ emotions (their Cognitive Empathy), do not feel them (their Affective Empathy), or both?

From Many Studies, Answers

We looked at every study conducted between 1979 and 2020 that reported the association between narcissism and the two empathy components in people 18 and over—for a total of 93 studies with 32,200 participants.

The results showed that the narcissism-empathy link is not “all or nothing,” and is more nuanced than some might think. Narcissistic individuals have both lower Cognitive and Affective Empathy, at least when they are asked to self-report about their general empathic tendencies. Furthermore, this association is the same for people of all ages, across both sexes and forensic (those charged or convicted of criminal offenses), clinical (those with a diagnosis of mental disorder), and general communities.

However, when empathic abilities are assessed more objectively, for example with tests of relevant skills, a different pattern emerges. Narcissistic individuals perform worse on Affective Empathy tasks, but perform on Cognitive Empathy tests just as well as less narcissistic individuals. For example, when asked to look at pictures of people’s faces, or to watch video clips showing other people expressing different emotions, narcissistic individuals are able to identify each emotion as well as less narcissistic people, only they report feeling them to a lesser extent compared to less narcissistic people.

Thus, when narcissistic individuals are asked about their Cognitive and Affective Empathy, they tend to report less understanding, recognition, and feeling of others’ emotions. But, objectively, although they are capable of recognizing and understanding others’ thoughts and feelings, they may still not feel them themselves. We suggest that the deficits observed in the emotional aspects of empathy may be more pervasive, whereas the capacity to recognize and understand others’ emotions seems to be more intact, although may not always be engaged. It is likely that being able to understand others’ emotions but not feel them is one of the mechanisms by which narcissistic individuals (and the mythological Narcissus) are able to treat others in a callous manner.

For Further Reading

Urbonaviciute, G., & Hepper, E. G. (2020). When is narcissism associated with low empathy? A meta-analytic review. Journal of Research in Personality. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jrp.2020.104036

Hepper, E. G., Hart, C. M., & Sedikides, C. (2014). Moving Narcissus: Can Narcissists Be Empathic? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167214535812

Greta Urbonaviciute is a doctoral student at the University of Surrey in the School of Psychology. Her research interests are in narcissism and empathy, and how perspective-taking and emotion regulation affect the association.