A key trait of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is the lack of empathy. At least, that’s what most mental health professionals believe, and a lack of empathy is included in the diagnostic criteria of the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association).
But clinical research has failed to establish that narcissists lack empathy. How can this be? Many of us have endured, first-hand, the devastating lack of empathy exhibited by narcissists, antisocials and psychopaths.
Well, it turns out that there are two types of empathy, and these disordered individuals often lack one of them, but not the other. When you understand this, you’ll also understand why their behavior is so confusing.
This article summarizes the findings of three scientific papers. For more information, read the entire papers:
- Empathy in narcissistic personality disorder, from clinical and empirical perspectives, by Arielle Baskin-Sommers, Elizabeth Krusemark and Elsa Ronningstam.
- The functional architecture of human empathy, by Jean Decety and Philip L. Jackson.
- The role of identity instability in the relationship between narcissism and emotional empathy, by Rossella Di Pierro, Emanuele Preti, Marco Di Sarno and Valentina Di Mattei.
What is empathy?
Empathy has been described as “everyday mind reading.” Empathy evolved over millennia to help us rapidly discern the motivations of others. The potential to develop empathy is usually hardwired into our brains, and emerges in the second year of life.
Empathy has been defined as, “a sense of similarity between the feelings one experiences and those expressed by others.” This sounds simple, but it’s not. Empathy is actually a complex form of psychological inference involving observation, memory, knowledge and reasoning.
Many psychologists believe that empathy involved three processes:
- Feeling what another person is feeling
- Knowing what another person is feeling
- Having the intention to respond compassionately to another person’s distress
Two types of empathy
True empathy requires both the ability to share the emotional experience of the other person, and the ability to intellectually understand the other person’s experience. These abilities, therefore, distinguish the two types of empathy:
- Emotional empathy refers to a person’s ability to feel and respond to another’s emotional state.
- Cognitive empathy refers to a person’s intellectual ability to understand and identify the mental states underlying another’s behavior and experience. This is also called “theory of mind.”
Emotional and cognitive empathy use different parts of the brain. Emotional empathy usually develops before cognitive empathy. When an infant or toddler doesn’t seem to react to another’s distress, it may be an early warning sign that he or she is at risk for developing a lack of empathy and antisocial behavior.
Narcissists and empathy
Researchers have found growing evidence that narcissists display significant impairments in emotional empathy, but little to no impairment in cognitive empathy.
In other words, many narcissists can intellectually understand what you are feeling, but they do not have their own emotional reaction to your feelings. The same applies to antisocials and psychopaths.
Research also suggests that narcissists can use their cognitive empathy if they want to, which they will do when they see some benefit for themselves in appearing empathetic.
When narcissists don’t see any gain for themselves in using their empathy, or they simply don’t want to deal with your feelings, they turn their cognitive empathy off.
Therefore, it is not accurate to say that narcissists, along with antisocials and psychopaths, simply lack empathy. It’s more precise to say that although these disordered individuals may not respond emotionally to the feelings of others, they are intellectually capable of understanding those feelings.
The explanation for your confusion
If you have sometimes seen empathic reactions from the narcissist in your life, and other times he or she has been totally dismissive of your feelings, now you know why.
Emotional empathy is impaired in narcissists, but cognitive empathy is not. They understand what you are feeling. If they have something to gain by appearing compassionate, they’ll do it. If they see no benefit for themselves, they’ll ignore your feelings — or criticize you for being too emotional.
Narcissists don’t have a lack of empathy. But they do display selective empathy.