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How to Make the Narcissist in Your Life a Little Nicer

A new study finds that deliberately considering the perspectives of others can help conceited people feel empathy.

Love is great, but it’s actually empathy that makes the world go ‘round. Understanding other peoples’ viewpoints is so essential to human functioning that psychologists sometimes refer to empathy as “social glue, binding people together and creating harmonious relationships.”

Narcissists tend to lack this ability. Think of the charismatic co-worker who refuses to cover for a colleague who’s been in a car accident. Or the affable friend who nonetheless seems to delight in back-stabbing.

These types of individuals are what’s known as “sub-clinical” narcissists—the everyday egoists who, though they may not merit psychiatric attention, don’t make very good friends or lovers.

“If people are in a romantic relationship with a narcissist, they tend to cheat on their partners and their relationships break up sooner and end quite messily,” Erica Hepper, a psychologist at the University of Surrey in the U.K., told me. “They tend to be more deviant academically. They take credit for other peoples’ work.”

Psychologists have long thought that narcissists were largely incorrigible—that there was nothing we could do to help them be more empathetic. But for a new study in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Hepper discovered a way to measurably help narcissists feel the pain of others.

First, she gathered up 282 online volunteers who hailed from various countries but were mostly young and female. They took a 41-question personality quiz designed to assess their levels of subclinical narcissism, checking boxes next to statements like “I like to have authority over other people” or “I will be a success.” They then read a story about a person named Chris who had just gone through a breakup, and then took another quiz to determine how bad they felt for Chris. The more narcissistic among them were indeed less likely to feel empathy for the fictional jilted man.An important note here: The study participants, though they’re described as “narcissists,” were not clinically diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, a bona-fide mental illness. Psychologists aren’t sure how much overlap there is between functional people who are very narcissistic and those who suffer from NPD. One rule of thumb, Hepper tells me, is that most ordinary narcissists are happy, while NPD tends to lead its sufferers to extreme dissatisfaction with life.

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