Hope for Narcissists? Not Here.

A piece by Joseph Brean that I read recently displayed the headline New hope for narcissists: New Canadian study suggests there may be a cure for self-centred[sic] grandiosity after all. My first thought was “I doubt it.”


The press release for this study is pretty accurate and, although I have some criticisms of the study, the journal article doesn’t make the dubious claims found in this piece. However, I will say that it’s a little hard to tell if Brean is fully responsible because it is unclear whether he interviewed the scientists who wrote the article himself. Even if he did, it’s hard to know what that interview looked like. I’ve been on the other side of such interviews and usually the end product is a gross misrepresentation of what I’ve said.

This piece also brought to mind the issue that free and easy access to original sources has some serious trade-offs. Laypersons often misinterpret studies (hell, scientists often do) and in communities such as skepticism, some of those laypersons speak those misinterpretations on stages with an air of authority. But more importantly, some calling themselves science writers misunderstand, cherry-pick, overgeneralize, over-extrapolate, and otherwise misrepresent the implications of findings, especially those in the social sciences. With the vast majority of the public (including a lot of scientists short on time and resources) getting most of their science news from non-scientists and trusting those sources, I find this to be a bit of a problem.

So let’s take a look at the statements made in this piece and what I think is wrong with them, given the original study. The National Post piece introduces the study this way:

…narcissist is usually described as the product of a long and complicated psychological development. Like hypochondriacs, narcissists are made, not born.

New research out of Wilfrid Laurier University, however, suggests narcissism might be simpler than that. More than just a moral failing or psychiatric symptom, narcissism might reflect a basic mechanical failure of the brain’s natural tendency to mimic.

Um, no. No, the research does not suggest that, nor do I believe that descriptions of narcissism imply that it’s all about parenting. Most disorders, including personality disorders, appear to be the result of a complex interplay of environment and genetics.

But where the author really goes off track is in the next sentence:

Intriguingly, it also suggests that narcissism’s opposite, empathy, might even improve with practice.

Um, what?

When I read the press release, I saw nothing in it that even hints at practice effects, so either Brean (the author) actually read (and misinterpreted) the article or he gleaned this bad information from the interview to which he refers. Or perhaps he just made it up because he thought he understood the research. Who knows?

Then there’s a quote of the lead author. Obhi, which reads, “Narcissists don’t imitate automatically.”

If that’s a quote, I hope it was taken out of context, because it reads as a statement of fact, a given, when it is merely one possible explanation for the findings, and one that does not appear in the journal article. In fact, it contradicts the findings and even the title of the journal article: Automatic Imitation is Reduced in Narcissists. This is a poorly-chosen title for at least two reasons that I will discuss below.

So what can we reasonably take from this study? Well, let me first summarize the study.

Obhi, Hogeveen, Giocomin, and Jordon conducted a rather simple study with a final sample of 24 subjects. The subjects performed a task which involved responding to a cue by lifting one of two fingers off of the keyboard. The cues were embedded in images of hands in which one of the fingers is raised. For some trials, the cue matched the position of the hand in the picture (e.g., the picture showed the index finger raised and the cue instructed the subject to raise their index finger) and in some trials the cue was incongruent with the picture (e.g.,  the picture showed the index finger raised and the cue instructed the subject to raise their middle finger).

This task is a paradigm that many readers will be familiar with, even if you don’t recognize it immediately. It is similar to the Stroop Task, the Simon Task, and the task used in Implicit Attribution/Association Tests.

Essentially, the task involves suppressing an automatic response–going against one’s initial, automatic response to a stimulus. For example, the classic Stroop Task involves identifying the color of ink in which a word is printed. The trick is that the words the participant is looking at name various colors. Nearly everyone will take longer to name or respond to the ink color when it is different from the word than when the word is the color of the ink.

Stroop Task

The Stroop Test. It takes longer to identify the ink color when a color word does not match the ink color (bottom) than when it does (top).

This well-established effect demonstrates how automatic reading can be. Automatic behaviors are those which require few cognitive resources and are sometimes performed without much awareness. Automatic responses are often very difficult to “shut off”. When we attempt to perform a similar task which competes, the automatic response must be actively suppressed. This is what happens in the Stroop Task; we must suppress the response of reading the word in order to identify its ink color. The differences in reaction time between color-congruent and color-incongruent trials are a good measure of how much the automatic task interferes with the primary task.

The Simon Task and Implicit Attribution tests take advantage of something we call mirror responses. Research has confirmed that we see someone do something (e.g., as simple as raising a hand), our brains automatically respond with activity which is very similar to what we might see if we were performing the task ourselves. This response has many advantages, including facilitating joint attention. Joint attention is demonstrated when you move your eyes to see what someone else is looking at.

Many automatic tasks such as reading are acquired through lots and lots of practice, but not all. Some, like joint attention, are probably innate reflexes. Mirror responses are probably a mixture of both.

Obhi and colleagues also asked participants to complete a short version of the NPI [Narcissistic Personality Inventory] and divided them into two groups (“high” and “low”) based on their NPI scores. They found greater differences in reaction times (RTs) between congruent and incongruent trials among those in the low narcissism group than among those in the high narcissism group. In other words, participants who scored higher in narcissism demonstrated less interference than those who scored low in narcissism. Even more pronounced, however, were the differences in accuracy. Those high in narcissism erred in about 5.3% of the trials while the error rate for those low in narcissism was more than 12%.

As an aside, remember that quote about narcissists not imitating automatically? Well, the findings suggest otherwise. There certainly was an interference effect for both groups. Those high in narcissism did indeed respond more quickly and with fewer errors when the cues matched the images. Furthermore, the title of the article was Automatic Imitation is Reduced in Narcissists, yet they did not study narcissists. Subjects were not selected for their NPI scores and no diagnoses were recorded. The participants in the “high” group were simply those whose NPI scores were in the top half of the subjects tested.

The authors discussed possible explanations for these findings thoroughly. Essentially, the best explanation they give is that those high in narcissism more easily suppress mirror responses. This could be due to greater self-regulation or it could be that mirror responses are not as automatic. I cannot account for the decision to title the paper with one of those explanations, except that they dismissed the self-regulation hypothesis with a non sequitur.

What I can say for certain is that the findings do not suggest that narcissism is a product of poor mirror responses. They also do not suggest that practicing such responses, which are largely learned implicitly, would make them more automatic or make the individual more empathetic and less narcissistic. Neither of these hypotheses is impossible, but neither is likely, either.

The authors also acknowledged many of the study’s limitations, including the relatively small sample size, but my reaction to this study remains mixed. On the one hand, I applaud these researchers because although it seems that this area should have been well-studied, it isn’t. On the other hand, this is a very simple study to execute and the paper has four authors, yet they completely missed the opportunity to ensure strong findings by putting in just a little bit more work.

The study would be improved leaps and bounds by running a larger sample and testing whether self-regulation or motivation were factors. The latter can be easily accomplished by including a condition with non-social context (e.g., arrows instead of fingers). Furthermore, they could have pre-screened the subject pool and recruited only those who scored exceptionally high or exceptionally low in narcissism, thus raising their power tremendously.

That said, these findings are consistent with what we know about narcissism. A key feature of narcissism is reduced empathy and it stands to reason that reactions to the actions of others would be more automatic in those with greater empathy.

In the discussion section of every study is a laundry list of possible explanations and implications for the study’s findings, but most of these are speculation and usually labeled quite clearly as such by the authors. This does not seem to stop laypersons and “science writers” from accepting the speculations they find most interesting or desirable.

In this case, the implications of the study for a behavioral test of empathy are much more plausible than those for treatment of narcissism.


h/t Tim Farley of WhatsTheHarm.net and Skeptools.


Obhi SS, Hogeveen J, Giacomin M, & Jordan CH (2013). Automatic Imitation Is Reduced in Narcissists. Journal of experimental psychology. Human perception and performance PMID: 23957308

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