Empathy priming has been explored as a potential strategy for reducing acceptance of the rape myth. But a study published in Sexual Behavior Files suggests that this approach can sometimes fail. The researchers found that college-aged men with high levels of narcissism actually disavowed the most problematic beliefs about rape after they were encouraged to empathize with a fictional rape victim.
Sexual assault and rape are major issues on college campuses, with women being the most frequent victims. Sexual violence against women is perpetuated by accepting the rape myth—a set of false beliefs about sexual assault that serve to denigrate the experience of victims. Studies have found these beliefs to be higher in male college students compared to the general population.
In order to combat rape culture, psychology studies have evaluated prevention programs based on empathy priming. While the premise of these programs is that priming people to empathize with rape victims should reduce acceptance of the rape myth, the evidence for this effect is sparse.
“Rape and sexual assault rates on college campuses in the United States are shockingly high. studies estimate that somewhere between 1 in 4 or 1 in 5 women will be raped while in college. And those are the cases that are reported — we also know that most cases are never reported,” said study author Alexandra D. Long, a doctoral candidate at American University and a member of the Interpersonal Emotions Laboratory.
“Much of the research literature has focused on victims and risk factors. this is very important work. However, I had questions about the characteristics of perpetrators and people most likely to commit sexual assault or rape. We know from federal statistics that 99% of people who commit rape are men (Rennison, 2002). In addition, we know that perpetrators of sexual violence tend to have high levels of narcissism.”
“Narcissism—by definition—implies a lack of empathy, but many existing campus sexual assault prevention programs use ’empathy’ as a tool to try to increase empathy toward rape and sexual assault victims,” the researcher explained.
Long and her colleague Nathaniel R. Herr noted that empathy priming has yet to be tested in a population at high risk of accepting the rape myth, for example, men with high levels of narcissism. The narcissistic rape response theory posits that when a man’s sexual advances are rejected, certain narcissistic qualities make him more likely to push to get what he wants instead of ceasing his pursuit. For example, narcissists tend to lack empathy, crave admiration, and have a great deal of autonomy—qualities that could make them more likely to hold problematic beliefs about rape.
“I wanted to explore what happens when narcissistic individuals are motivated to feel empathy toward a victim of sexual violence,” Long said. “What Happens on College Campuses When Potential Perpetrators Are Subjected to Empathy Exercises? Is this a critical element in the public health effort to reduce campus sexual assault rates?”
Long and Herr initiated a study to investigate the interplay between narcissistic tendencies, empathy, and acceptance of the rape myth among college-aged men. A sample of 74 heterosexual men between the ages of 18 and 25 was recruited from a private Atlantic university in the United States. They first completed a questionnaire assessing two measures of empathy and four subtypes of narcissism—grandiose, vulnerable, pathological, and sexual.
For the experiment, the men were randomly assigned to participate in either the empathy condition or the objective condition. Each group was then presented with a vignette describing a rape scenario, but received different instructions. The empathetic group was instructed to “imagine how the woman feels” and “put yourself in her shoes,” while the objective group was told to “try to be as objective as possible about the woman” and “try to remain distanced. ” Students also completed the Rape Myth Acceptance Scale, a 22-item self-report scale used to assess problematic beliefs about rape and sexual assault.
“Empathy is the process of understanding and sharing the emotional experience of another person,” Long explained. “Narcissism is a trait that some of us have more or less in our personalities, in our ways of interacting with the world. People who are more narcissistic than others seem to have a harder time with empathy. People who commit sexual violence tend to have higher levels of narcissism and lower levels of empathy than those who don’t. Accepting the rape myth is validating false, problematic beliefs about rape and sexual assault. Perpetrators of sexual violence report higher levels of acceptance of the rape myth, as we might expect.”
The researchers found that participants with higher baseline levels of empathy endorsed lower acceptance of the rape myth, while participants with higher baseline levels of narcissism endorsed higher acceptance of the rape myth. Of the four types of narcissism, sexual narcissism had the strongest links to acceptance of the rape myth.
The results further revealed an interaction between empathy priming and narcissism on acceptance of the rape myth. For men low in vulnerable or pathological narcissism, the empathy condition reduced acceptance of the rape myth compared to the objective condition. But for men high in vulnerability or pathological narcissism, the empathy condition actually increased acceptance of the rape myth. For grandiose and sexual narcissists, acceptance of the rape myth was unaffected by empathy priming.
Worryingly, this suggests that men who were at higher risk of accepting the rape myth—and thus, perpetrating rape—disproved rape stereotypes more strongly after empathizing with a fictional rape victim.
“Our study showed that empathy priming was associated with reduced acceptance of the rape myth among college men with lower narcissistic traits,” Long told PsyPost. “Thus, for men who are already at a lower risk of committing sexual violence, this ’empathy’ technique was helpful in further reducing the risk of perpetration. Men with higher narcissistic traits, however, when asked to feel empathy for a rape victim, reported significantly higher levels of acceptance of the rape myth than those in the “objective” group (not intended for empathy). This implies that using ’empathy’-based interventions among college men who are already at higher risk of perpetrating sexual violence could exacerbate that risk.”
“The key: colleges using empathy programs to prevent sexual assault on campus may consider measuring students’ personality traits first and not administering the intervention to those high in narcissism,” Long said. “Alternatively, campuses might consider doing away with the empathy-priming method altogether and instead implement an evidence-based curriculum (ie, providing students with evidence-based information about sexual violence and its consequences her). This would probably work best with the people who are most likely to become abusers.”
The study, like all research, has some limitations. “First, our sample was from a medium-sized, private university on the East Coast,” Long explained. “We did not include LGBTQ+ people in the study. Participants were heterosexual, cisgender male students. We did not ask participants whether they had committed or been victims of sexual violence. Therefore, data from our sample may not be generalizable to other populations, and we did not assess rates of self-reported offending.
“Many issues still need to be addressed,” Long continued. “Our study did not focus on other known correlates of sexual assault, such as alcohol use, knowledge of consent, prior criminality, childhood sexual abuse, or antisocial personality traits, although there are other researchers working to study these constructs. While there is growing evidence of the differential outcomes of sexual violence among sexual and gender minorities, we did not examine how the patterns identified in our data might play out among these marginalized groups.”
“Finally, narcissism has not been seriously studied in the research literature,” the researcher added. “There is still much we do not understand about the development, behavior, interpersonal effects, and psychosocial outcomes of individuals who have high levels of narcissistic traits. With our current understanding of the personal and social harms associated with narcissism, it is imperative that we continue to study this construct to better understand how to intervene.”
Despite the need for future research, the new findings point to the importance of including personality measures in future sexual assault intervention studies. Additionally, the results have implications for the development of prevention programs on college campuses.
“Narcissism is not about taking a lot of selfies or hoping for high views on your social media posts,” Long said. “Narcissism is a personality trait that, at a certain level of intensity and together with many other factors, can contribute to mental health issues such as narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) and can significantly affect the well-being of individuals and those around them . If you are concerned about the mental health of yourself or a loved one and are looking for help, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) or https://www .samhsa .gov/.”
“If you have experienced sexual violence and are looking for help or want more information, call the National Rape, Abuse and Incest Network (RAINN) at 1-800-656-4673 from anywhere in the US or chat with someone online at https ://hotline .rainn.org/online.”
The study, “Narcissism, empathy, and acceptance of the rape myth among heterosexual college men,” was authored by Alexandra D. Long and Nathaniel R. Herr.