ISSN 0439-755X
CN 11-1911/B

Acta Psychologica Sinica ›› 2016, Vol. 48 ›› Issue (2): 199-210.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1041.2016.00199

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Self-love and other-love: Research on the relationships among narcissism, empathy and implicit altruism

HE Ning; ZHU Yunli   

  1. (Psychology School, Shaanxi Normal University, Xi’an 710062, China)
  • Received:2015-05-27 Published:2016-02-25 Online:2016-02-25
  • Contact: HE Ning, E-mail:


Narcissism (narcissistic personality disorder or narcissistic personality trait) has long been characterized in the clinical and nonclinical literature by a lack of empathy. Although a large body of empirical studies link empathy to altruism as the trigger for prosocial behaviors, few studies have directly explored the relationships among narcissism, empathy and altruism. Here, we present two experiments that examined the relationships among these three dimensions and provide insights into the narcissists’ state empathy and its association with their altruistic tendencies.
The total sample comprised 173 undergraduates divided into two groups, narcissists and non-narcissists, based on their responses to the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. Adopting split-half methods, participants scoring above the average were identified as narcissists and those below as non-narcissists. In study 1, the Interpersonal Reactivity Index–C and the Implicit Association Test were applied to compare the two groups on measures of empathy and implicit altruism. Narcissists were hypothesized to demonstrate lower levels of empathy and weaker tendencies of implicit altruism compared to non-narcissists. In study 2, a video was employed to investigate state empathy and its connection to implicit altruism. A 2 (narcissism: narcissists vs. non-narcissists) × 2 (experimental treatment: priming vs. control) design was applied, with participants randomly assigned into the two experimental conditions. The second hypothesis was that the priming of empathy would increase the empathy and implicit altruism of narcissists, whereas non-narcissists would be unaffected.
In Study 1, narcissists demonstrated lower levels of emotional (but not cognitive) empathy, and of implicit altruism, compared to their non-narcissistic counterparts. In Study 2, a significantly higher level of state empathy and implicit altruism among narcissists emerged after priming compared to the control group, suggesting that narcissists are able to produce emotionally appropriate responses to others when primed. Further, ANOVA analyses revealed that the elevation of emotional empathy elicited through priming contributed to the enhancement of overall empathy for narcissists. Conversely, non-narcissists were unaffected by the priming.

This is the first empirical study to test the narcissism–empathy relationship hypothesis proposed by Stone (1998), who argued that there could be separable aspects of ability and willingness that affect narcissistic individuals’ empathic functioning. Some narcissistic individuals may have intact empathic ability, but choose to disengage from others’ pain or distress. These findings extend the empirical evidence of empathy and altruism in terms of individual differences, and contribute to the understanding of mechanisms underlying prosocial behavior among narcissists. Narcissism is essentially emotional and motivational in nature, and emotionally based priming appears to bear particularly strong promise for increasing altruistic behaviors among narcissists. The results suggest possible pathways to practical improvement in the lack of empathy among narcissistic individuals.

Key words: narcissism, empathy, implicit altruism, Implicit Association Test