Can You Turn a Narcissist Into a Kind, Caring Altruist?

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Research on narcissism has traditionally focused on the antisocial features of personality (e.g., lack of empathy, manipulativeness, competitiveness, etc.).  A new study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletinexplores prosocial behavior by asking the question, “Can a narcissisticindividual also be a benevolent donor and help people in need?” The answer, it seems, is a qualified “yes.” It really just depends on the perspective of the narcissist.

Here is How it Works

One of the underlying cognitive themes woven into the narcissistic personality is egocentrism – being at the center of everything, especially those things that are impressive to others. Narcissists often position themselves as the dominant force behind winning outcomes in real-life and fantasy.  The researchers were able to tap into this psychological tendency.

in a way that triggers narcissistic donations. Across four studies totalling more than 1,000 participants, the research team studied charity appeals presented in one of two ways, “imagine-recipient” or “imagine-self.”

Would you give money to a charity for refugee children?

For example, one of the studies asked participants to write a story about a refugee child who was a victim of war in his country. Half were instructed to place themselves in the child’s situation (“I am…”), and the other half (imagine-recipient group) were asked to imagine the child’s situation (“He is…”). Following the story-writing activity, all participants viewed a Facebook posting from a charity organization requesting financial support for refugee children. Finally, participants rated their donation intentions using a 4-point scale.

The results indicate that donation intent was greater for the high narcissism individuals compared to low narcissism, but only when they were instructed to imagine themselves in the refugee scene. Donation intent was less likely for high narcissists when they focused their imaginative energy on the recipients of the charity instead of themselves. Low-narcissism donors responded equally well to imagining either themselves or the recipient.

The research shows that high narcissism donors are better at imagining charitable behavior when exposed to an imagine-self appeal compared to an imagine-recipient appeal. If narcissists simulate the situation as if the donor were the recipient this has an empathy eliciting effect and leads to greater charitable outcomes.

High narcissism individuals do not respond strongly to persuasiontechniques that ask them to “see through someone else’s eyes” due to the difficulty in imagining other’s emotions and needs. This was the case with the imagine-recipient condition that simply asked donors to picture the recipient and his or her situations.

Real World Implications

Narcissistic individuals have traditionally posed a challenge for charity campaigns because the core personality features are so often associated with self-centeredness and lower levels of empathy. This research offers a promising new imagery-based route to prosocial behavior. In the future, charities might be able to employ persuasion tools specifically targeting this donor population such as first-person stories and provocative pictures that better engage high-narcissism people.

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