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Narcissists & Empathy: Is Empathy a Learned Behavior?

Updated on September 21, 2016

Empathy. The ability to feel how others feel. Is it innate or learned? This is something that comes up a lot when discussing narcissists, because if they are generally considered to be lacking empathy and this is the reason for their behavior, the question then becomes why are they lacking it. In order to illustrate this, we'll start with a little story.

A bit of history

In 1974, in an experiment/art performance called Rhythm 0, Marina Abramović placed 72 objects on a table in a room and stated that she would not move or resist for 6 hours, no matter what was done to her. The results are perhaps shocking to some, and predictable to others. Abramovic allowed random people to do anything they wanted with her and as soon as they realized that there would be no resistance or repercussion no matter what they did to her, they got increasingly aggressive. Some cut her neck with a knife and drank the blood. They placed her naked on the table and put the knife in her vagina. Someone loaded the gun with the available bullet and put it to her head.

Initially, Abramović said, participants were peaceful and timid, but it escalated to violence quickly. “The experience I learned was that … if you leave decision to the public, you can be killed… I felt really violated: they cut my clothes, stuck rose thorns in my stomach, one person aimed the gun at my head, and another took it away. It created an aggressive atmosphere. After exactly 6 hours, as planned, I stood up and started walking toward the public. Everyone ran away, escaping an actual confrontation.”

This experiment and other situations like it suggest that when people are allowed to act with no repercussions, they will take it as far as they possibly can. It is not necessary to be directed to this behavior and there is no one who is immune to it; it's human nature. People do not become this way because they are forced to or because of any other reason than the simple fact that they want to. They want to hurt and subjugate those who are weaker, just like any other animal. Humans in general are uncomfortable with this fact; they are quick to point out things they consider to be mitigating factors, such as differences in culture, race, time period and anything else they can but these things do not mitigate anything. People become monsters when they are allowed to become monsters.

How this applies to narcissists - and the rest of us

The author recently wrote an article entitled "Humanizing The Narcissist." Writing this article felt necessary because though dehumanizing narcissists is both wrong and unfair, it is very common. Narcissists are very definitely human beings. In some ways, they may actually reflect "true" human nature more accurately than other people. You see this very clearly in children before they are taught the responsible and acceptable way to behave in society. Empathy, generosity and compassion are not innate. They are learned. The narcissist is what you end up with when empathy is not learned, when all of the societal conditioning we need in order to exist together doesn't "take" correctly. The capacity for empathy is innate (in most) but empathy itself must be cultivated and nurtured or it does not mature. This was addressed at length in the article "How Narcissists Are Created." The things that nurture empathy in "normal" people generally do not occur for narcissists. This is why they are considered to be lacking empathy. The capacity is likely still there, like a dormant seed, but nothing has come of it because it was not encouraged to grow and now it is too late. Perhaps that is part of the omnipresent emptiness they feel. Narcissists are in fact capable of a species of empathy, but it is more of a primitive ability that centers around reading and reacting to other people's emotions, as opposed to actually understanding or caring about them. True emotional empathy is beyond most of them.

If we look at situations where humans are given power over other humans and leave to act however they want with no repercussions, we notice that empathy and other-centered emotions or behaviors quickly disappear. Power corrupts, right? But why? This has been demonstrated by many experiments besides the one I mentioned earlier, probably the most notable being the Stanford Prison Experiment. I personally also often look to Nazi Germany as an example, but we can find many throughout history. These examples could be said to demonstrate many things, but to me what they demonstrate most of all is that we as a species and a community conform our behavior to society's standards of what is acceptable more so than to any innate or internal phenomena. This lends credence to the idea that empathy (as it relates to guilt and shame and their effect on behavior) is not so much self-imposed as it is socially-imposed. This is why power corrupts. If there is no one to shame you, will you know you are wrong? How? Perhaps more importantly, will you care if you are wrong? Why? Many might say "Yes" to these questions, but they have also spent the entirety of their lives being cultivated in our guilt- and shame-inducing society. Not that these things are wrong. These things are necessary if we are going to live together. Without guilt, people are very dangerous indeed. But if you did not exist in that society, or if that society were somehow destroyed to the point that those rules no longer applied, your answer might be very different.

This is how narcissists behave all the time. They get around socially-imposed mandates on behavior by using mental gymnastics such as justifications. They choose to believe they are the abused ones, the attacked ones, the wronged ones. Why does this work for them? Because society has different rules for victims. Attacking someone is wrong. Defending yourself is not. If you can present yourself as a victim, you will not be judged for anything you've done. This is how they operate. Do they really believe they are victims? Some probably do, but others know they are not. They know they are lying. In their minds though, it is all justified and therefore it is all OK. In some ways, we are all like that. We never lie better than when we are lying to ourselves.

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