Narcissism and its clinical analogue, Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), comprise a set of personality constructs characterized by
pervasive patterns of grandiosity in fantasy and behavior, feelings of uniqueness and superiority, excessive need for admiration, a sense of entitlement,
arrogance, self-centeredness, and low empathy. With some evidence suggesting that trait narcissism levels are increasing in the world, understanding
its consequences is increasingly pressing. As the capacity to recognize and understand others’ emotional states and to feel a similar emotion to
another person, a lack of empathy in grandiose narcissistic individuals and NPD patients has long been observed. However, the narcissistic trait can
also be manifested in a lesser-studied form, vulnerable narcissism, which shares the features of self-absorption, entitlement, conceit, disregard for
others and interpersonal antagonism, but presents with low self-esteem, introversion, shame, psychological distress, and fragility. Given its variants
in self-regulatory functioning, studies have found that vulnerable narcissism may differently relate to empathy. Will the vulnerable narcissistic trait
be negatively associated with empathy for pain? According to the Dynamic Self-Regulatory Processing Model, vulnerable narcissistic individuals
need to reduce their attention to pain of others and reduce their level of pain empathy to regulate their emotions and thus maintain a positive view of
themselves. In present research, we systematically test this hypothesis by two studies.
In Study 1, we investigated whether the attentional bias toward others’ painful faces mediates the relation between trait vulnerable narcissism
and pain empathy. The level of trait vulnerable narcissism was measured by the Hypersensitive Narcissism Scale (HSNS). The attentional bias
toward others’ painful faces was measured by the dot-probe paradigm, in which a painful face and a neutral face were presented simultaneously for
500 ms, and the participants had to indicate the positions of the probes after the face presentations. The empathy for pain was measured by using a
pain judgement task, in which participants were asked to rate the intensity of pain portrayed by faces of 10 Chinese models. The results of Study 1
showed that, trait level variations in vulnerable narcissism were negatively associated with attentional bias toward painful faces, which in turn led to
lower levels of empathy responses to painful faces. In addition, the results also revealed that such an association held even when the effects of control
variables, including age, gender, education, positive affect and negative affect, were controlled.
In Study 2, we further investigated whether the eye movement pattern in pain perception mediates the relationship between trait vulnerable
narcissism and pain empathy. In this study, participants were asked to complete a pain judgment task, in which painful faces or neutral faces was
presented for 2000 ms and participants had to indicate the intensity of pain portrayed by those faces in 10-point-scale. Eye movements were tracked by
the SMI RED 500 eye-tracker when participants were viewing the faces. Four areas of interests were selected (i.e., areas of forehead, eyes, nose, and
mouth). The results showed that trait vulnerable narcissism was negatively associated with the fixation duration within the eye areas of painful faces,
which in turn led to the decreasing empathy for pain.
In summary, results of the present research support our hypothesis that vulnerable narcissistic individuals have deficits in their ability of pain
empathy, which is caused by their reduced attentions toward others’ painful faces.