Do Narcissists Actually Lack Empathy?

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An unwillingness to empathize is different than being unable to do so.

We generally assume that narcissistic people lack empathy, as though they are missing a certain brain function. Granted, such thinking can make us feel better when a relationship dissolves. However, in some circumstances, an individual with a narcissistic personality disorder may display empathy, which can be confusing.

Consider the possibility that narcissists are consciously and unconsciously unwilling to empathize, rather than lacking the capacity to do so. The notion that a person can have a capacity for empathy, yet not be empathically responsive, may be useful for understanding the personality characteristics of people we label as narcissistic.

Empathy is the capacity to think and feel oneself into the inner life of another person. [1] Some regard empathy as a vicarious affective response based on the awareness of another person’s emotional state. [2] Many definitions of empathy include the concept of perspective-taking—emotionally or cognitively seeing things from the other person’s position. [3] Thus, empathy can involve both a cognitive process (the ability to understand another person’s view in terms of what the other is thinking or feeling) and an experiential process (resonating with another person’s emotional response).

A lack of empathy is often considered to be one of the distinctive features of narcissism. However, this is not entirely the case. The criteria for the formal psychiatric diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of the American Psychiatric Association includes “lacks empathy,” but this designation has a critical qualifier: namely, “is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.” [4] An unwillingness to empathize with another person is not the same as being unable to empathize with another person.

Some researchers have found that the cognitive functioning necessary for empathy, such as the ability to role-play or take another person’s perspective, occurs in a different location of the brain than the emotional aspects of empathy, such as sensitivity to what another person is feeling or experiencing. [5] Whether one is narcissistic or not, our brains simulate the feelings of those around us. This ability to mimic another’s feelings enables us to reconstruct within us what other people may be experiencing. [6]

Given the many and complicated interactions we have with others throughout our lives, the ability to automatically understand what is going on with someone else is a crucial skill for successful social functioning. Some studies have shown a relationship between narcissism and deficient emotional empathy, but that narcissists, nevertheless, can recognize and react to the suffering of others, even if they are motivated to disregard such distress in other people. [7]

The capacity to empathize does not preclude its use for bad behavior. Descriptions of empathy have included the notion that empathy can be used for destructive purposes. [8] [9] Thus, people who have a narcissistic personality may consciously or unconsciously be motivated to withhold an empathic response to control a partner or to justify their behavior. They may exploit their understanding of another’s emotional state to manipulate that person. Using their empathy manipulatively, people with narcissistic pathology know how to evoke insecurity in their partners and provoke attachment anxiety. [10]

The concept that a person can have the capacity for empathy, yet not be empathic in his or her response, is also important for understanding how people with a narcissistic personality disorder may protect themselves. Consider for a moment that these people do not really lack empathy, but instead, their vulnerability limits their freedom to express it. Thus, they have an unwillingness to empathize rather than a lack of empathy.

Many people who seem to lack empathy for the other humans in their lives can express enormous sympathy and compassion for their pets, and they may overtly express empathy regarding an ill or injured animal. In such situations, someone with a narcissistic personality may feel emotionally safe and capable of vulnerability. The subjective experience of trust can be a powerful tool for narcissists that reduces perceived threats and allows them to attend to the needs and feelings of others. [11]

There is evidence indicating that narcissistic individuals are hyper-sensitive to information that could cause them psychological distress, but at the same time, they may be oblivious to such information at the level of conscious awareness. [12] Interpersonally, where someone with narcissistic traits experiences helplessness or vulnerability, they are likely to withhold an empathic response automatically, appearing cold-hearted or as refusing to take responsibility for hurtful behavior. How do we understand why someone would appear to lack empathy or have an unwillingness to empathize? The answer involves a personality organization that over a lifetime has been scripted to avoid shame.

When emotions occur in persistent or repeated forms, we consider them as dispositional characteristics of the individual or personality traits—situations that typically activate a coherent pattern of interacting emotions or scripted behaviors. Unfortunately, the language of personality traits overshadows the emotional states that motivate the behavior. [13] For example, we generally consider narcissism as having to do with behaviors or traits, such as grandiosity, entitlement, and a lack of empathy, but this obscures how these behaviors and traits are patterned responses to specific emotional experiences. Shame is the central emotional experience of narcissism, and narcissistic disorders reflect behaviors that serve to disavow and regulate shame. [14] [15]

Since an empathic response often involves an unconscious assessment of one’s vulnerability to experiencing shame, the narcissist’s inhibition of an empathic response (“unwillingness”) may simply be self-protective. This also points to the affective limitations that accompany narcissistic personality disorder. Narcissists do not consciously feel a lack of empathy or an unwillingness to empathize. Instead, in many situations where one might expect them to empathize, their limitations activate a sense of helplessness (imagined vulnerability) followed by scripted responses to shame, such as shame-fear (fear of loss of face) or shame-rage (protection from some imagined trauma from the past). [16]

Thus, if you are involved with someone who is motivated by shame to be consciously or unconsciously unwilling to empathize with what you feel, your task is to protect yourself. Blaming heartache on a former partner’s “lack of empathy,” for example, is a mistake. You may be responding to your own shame by attacking someone who could not provide what you needed in the first place, due to their restricted emotional freedom. Instead, by accepting your disappointment and looking inside yourself, you can learn.


[1] Kohut, H. (1984). How Does Analysis Cure? Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

[2] Eisenberg, N., Miller, P. A., Schaller, M., Fabes, R. A., Fultz, J., Shell, R., et al. (1989). The role of sympathy and altruistic personality traits in helping: A reexamination. Journal of Personality 57:41-67.

[3] Hoffman, M. L. (2000). Empathy and Moral Development: Implications for Caring and Justice. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

[4] American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.).

[5] Eslinger, P. J. (1998). Neurological and neuropsychological bases of empathy. European Neurology 39:193-199.

[6] Lundqvist, L., and Dimberg, U. (1995). Facial expressions are contagious. Journal of Psychophysiology 9:203-211.

[7] Baskin-Sommers A, Krusemark E, Ronningstam E. Empathy in narcissistic personality disorder: from clinical and empirical perspectives. J Pers Disord. 2014; 5: 323–333. per0000061

[8] Decety, J., and Moriguchi, Y. (2007). The empathic brain and its dysfunction in psychiatric populations: Implications for intervention across different clinical conditions. Biopsychosocial Medicine 1:22-52.

[9] Kohut, H. (1984). How Does Analysis Cure? Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

[10] Lamia, M. and Krieger, M. (2009). The White Knight Syndrome. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

[11] Burgmer, P., Weiss, A., and Ohmann, K. (2019). I don’t feel ya: how narcissism shapes empathy. Self and Identity. DOI: 10.1080/15298868.2019.1645730

[12] Bilotta, E., Carcione, A., Fera, T., Moroni, F., Nicolo, G. Pedone, R., Pellecchia, G., Semerari, A., and Colle, L. (2018). Symptom severity and mindreading in narcissistic personality disorder. PLoS ONE, 13(8). doi: org/10.1371/journal.pone.0201216.

[13] Plutchik, R. (2000). Emotions in the practice of psychotherapy: Clinical implications of affect theories. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

[14] Lewis, H. B. (1987). Shame and the narcissistic personality. In D. L. Nathanson (Ed.), The many faces of shame (pp. 93-132). New York, NY: Guilford.

[15] Nathanson, D. L. (1992). Shame and pride: Affect, sex, and the birth of the self. New York, NY: Norton.

[16] David, G. F. (2020, January 4). Personal email communication.

The Halo Effect

sun with halloThe Halo effect was first documented by the US psychologist Frederick Lyman Wells in a study of ratings of the literary merit of authors. The study was published in the Archives of Psychology in 1907. It is a form of cognitive bias in which a person, brand, or thing evaluated to possess one desirable or positive trait is consequently evaluated to possess many other desirable or positive traits. In person perception, it is a generalization from the perception of one prominent attribute to an impression of the personality as a whole, leading to inflated correlations between rated characteristics. In other words when a person or object is perceived to be good in one aspect, we generally perceive him/her to be good in other areas as well. The term is occasionally limited to occasions in which it leads to an overvaluation of the personality as a whole. In simple terms, your general perception of an individual as “He/She is good!” influences your perception of that person’s particular traits (“He/She is intelligent also!”). The term ‘halo error’ was introduced in 1920 by the US psychologist Edward Thorndike.

The movie Dark Knight's Joker doll

Are Psychopaths Sexy?

Psychopaths exert a strange allure. The fictional psychopath has been a staple of film and television for decades, and the popularity of true-crime podcasts and streaming-service documentary series suggests that our fascination with psychopathy is on the increase.

A curiosity about the psychological precursors of manipulative or violent behavior can be laudable: If we understand psychopathy we will be better able to address its negative consequences. However, interest in psychopaths often appears to be motivated less by a desire to learn than by a desire for the psychopaths themselves.

In the wake of Netflix’s Ted Bundy Tapes, viewers flooded social media to declare that Bundy — a convicted serial killer — was hot. Cinema, too, is littered with portrayals of sexy psychopaths, played by actors such as Christian Bale (American Psycho), Zac Efron (Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile), Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl), and Sharon Stone (Basic Instinct).

Why do we find psychopaths so interesting and, in some cases, attractive?

According to new research, it shouldn’t be surprising. A pair of psychologists from Ontario, Canada have suggested that psychopathy may, in fact, be a tactic for attracting sexual partners.

Fake It Till You Make It

Kristopher Brazil of Brock University and Adelle Forth of Carleton University point out that success in relationships is influenced by a person’s attractiveness. A person is judged more attractive if they possess qualities in demand within their pool of potential partners. These qualities can include physical appearance, but also sincerity, honesty, success, and access to resources such as money. People who do not possess these qualities are at a disadvantage in the mating market. Brazil and Forth hypothesize that psychopaths may be motivated to fake attractive qualities in an effort to secure access to partners who would otherwise not be interested.

This hypothesis is bolstered by past research indicating that people high in psychopathy tend to be egocentric, promiscuous, and sexually opportunistic; to be more willing to lie and cheat; and to exhibit a superficial charm and an ability to inhibit emotional “leakage” (giving away one’s true feelings).

To test their theory, Brazil and Forth recruited around 50 young men from a Canadian university. Each man was introduced to a female volunteer (actually a confederate of the researchers). The pair was prompted to discuss what each liked to do on a first date or what they thought was important in a relationship. The conversations were video recorded. Afterward, the men completed a psychopathy survey.

An independent group of around 100 women viewed these videos and rated each man on his desirability as a dating partner. The women were also asked to imagine that each man had expressed a desire to meet up with them, and to record a voicemail for him to arrange a date. Of course, these voicemails were never delivered to the men. Instead, the scientists analyzed the voice for pitch.

Desirable Psychopaths

Brazil and Forth found that men who scored higher on the psychopathy questionnaire were rated more desirable by women. But why were the psychopaths more attractive? It’s possible they were physically more alluring that the men who scored lower on psychopathy. That’s why the psychologists statistically controlled for the physical attractiveness of the men. Even after discounting the effect of appearance, more psychopathic men were more desirable, which suggests that their greater appeal stems from their non-verbal behavior.

Brazil and Forth also expected that women would raise the pitch of their voices when recording voicemails for men higher in psychopathy, because previous research has indicated that women increase the frequency of their voice pitch (whether consciously or unconsciously) when conversing with attractive men. This hypothesis was not supported, although exploratory analyses suggested that women’s vocal changes might depend on a man’s pattern of psychopathic traits. Women tended to increase the pitch of their voices when recording a message for a man higher in the affective component of psychopathy (shallow emotions, callousness, lack of concern for others) and to lower their pitch in response to men higher in the antisocial component (disregard for authority, poor anger controls). It seems that not all psychopaths are equal, nor equally attractive.

Although it is unlikely that psychopathy is a tactic in the sense that it is a consciously enacted plan—people who exhibit psychopathic tendencies are not able to shed or adopt personality traits at will—Brazil and Forth conclude that their results “suggest that psychopathy in men may enable them to ‘enact’ the desirable qualities women prefer in social and dating encounters.”

It should be noted that psychopathy is a spectrum and that the type of psychopath who ends up as the subject of a Netflix true-crime series is an extreme example. The allure of the everyday garden-variety psychopath of the sort one might find studying at a Canadian university, for instance, may not be all that surprising, especially if such men are are able to simulate a marginally more appealing personality than that which comes naturally.

Brazil and Forth are also at pains to point out that their study only speaks to a possible evolutionary function of psychopathy, but does not seek to excuse or justify the negative behavior of psychopaths.


Brazil, K. J., & Forth, A. E. (in press). Psychopathy and the induction of desire: formulating and testing an evolutionary hypothesis. Evolutionary Psychological Science. doi:10.1007/s40806–019–00213–0

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Which Archetype Are You?

Damon Ashworth Psychology

Ever notice how any successful story throughout history tends to have a similar cast of characters?

If you haven’t bothered counting, I’ll let you know that most characters will fall into one of 12 principal roles, and this explains why and how we can find favourite stories so relatable. Carl Gustav Jung, a famous psychoanalyst, defined these characters and the journey they go on as Archetypes.

activity adventure backlit backpack

What is an Archetype?

An archetype is something that symbolises primary human motivations, drives, desires and goals. It influences how one finds meaning in life, what one values, and the personality characteristics that one has. Most people tend to identify primarily with one archetype, although it is possible to be a mix of a few different ones.

Below are the 12 archetypes, with a brief description below them:


If you’re a visionary, you value innovation above all else. You look for patterns in the…

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