Words are powerful things, and the words we use to classify and pathologise can be powerfully negative – something I’ve argued here before. Unfortunately, psychologists use pejorative and scientifically inaccurate language too – even when they are conducting positive and life-affirming research.
A recent example of this was the announcement that narcissists are able to feel empathy – based on a study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. The title of the paper asked “can narcissists be empathic?” and concludes that “narcissists can be moved by another’s suffering, if they take that person’s perspective”.
Let’s think about that a little. Narcissism is a term – a psychological term – which refers to “extreme selfishness”, “a grandiose view of one’s own talents and a craving for admiration” and “self-centredness.” This is a trait we all share, yet there is a tendency to reify it into a diagnosis – something I wholly disagree with as clinical psychologist. We all have a tendency – greater or less – to be selfish and I don’t see it as helpful to discuss “narcissism” and “narcissists” in diagnostic terms.
The researchers said they had focused on individuals with “subclinical narcissism”, rather than people with a clinical diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) because “people high in subclinical narcissism are psychologically healthy and well-adjusted, often even very successful, whereas people with NPD are inflexible and volatile, and don’t manage day-to-day life well.” But this kind of use of language nevertheless distorts and perverts our thinking.
This particular research is quite interesting and benign. But it comes across – with this kind of language – as if there are certain kinds of people walking secretly among us: narcissists. We immediately have a negative response, made worse by the implication that these narcissists “lack empathy”. The researchers’ delicacy in discussing “subclinical narcissism” in my opinion merely serves to reinforce the idea that such distinctions – and the conclusions made about people on the basis of such distinctions – are valid.
There is a prevalent myth that we should be scared of people with a diagnosed mental illness because of a lack of empathy. Perhaps it would make more sense, and be a little less alarming, if we didn’t say “narcissists lack empathy” and instead said “people who tend to think about themselves rather more than the average tend to think about other people somewhat less than the average”. Or even: “We’d all be better off if we thought about others a little more.” I think it would be less misleading and much less stigmatising, but it’s also less headline-grabbing than the alternative.
Similarly, I think it’s worth considering the second element of this research. The academics reported that “individuals high in narcissism … are capable of reporting higher empathy … if instructed to take that person’s perspective”. Clearly this is good news. But again I think we should be very careful – very careful indeed ––with our language. If read incorrectly, bearing in mind the paper’s title, this finding could be seen as suggesting that there are certain people out there with a pathology, called narcissism, that renders them incapable of empathy. But fortunately we’ve found a way of making them care more about other people. I don’t think it’s quite like that.
While it’s pretty obvious that selfishness is likely to be associated with antisocial behaviour and empathy protects us against hurting other people, it’s not helpful to suggest that crime can be accounted for as the symptom of some form of narcissistic mental disorder. And rather than framing this research around “narcissism”, it could be something more along the lines that people who tend to think about themselves rather more than the average do so, unless they are prompted to take the other person’s point of view.
Don’t get me wrong. This is good news. It’s good to think about the way in which we all, me included, can be self-centred, lacking in compassion, lacking in empathy. And the fact that simple, psychological, interventions (reminding ourselves to take the other person’s point of view) can increase that compassion is obviously good. It’s particularly important to note that this is a simple psychological cue; we’re not really correcting a brain abnormality here. We use language inappropriately when we label ordinary social and psychological phenomena as “disorders” and pathologies. We need to stop.