Empathy priming has been explored as a possible strategy to reduce acceptance of rape myths. But a study published in Archives of Sexual Behavior points out that this approach can sometimes backfire. The researchers found that college-age men with high levels of narcissism actually tolerated more problematic beliefs about rape after being encouraged to empathize with a fictional rape victim.
Sexual assault and rape are major problems on college campuses, with women being the most common victims. Sexual violence against women is perpetuated by acceptance of the rape myth—a set of false beliefs about sexual assault that serve to downplay victims’ experiences. Studies have shown that these beliefs are higher in male college students than in the typical population.
To combat rape culture, psychological studies have evaluated prevention programs based on empathy priming. While the premise of these programs is that preparing people to empathize with rape victims should reduce acceptance of rape myths, evidence for this effect is sparse.
“The rate of rape and sexual assault on college campuses in the United States is staggering; Studies estimate that between 1 in 4 and 1 in 5 women are raped while studying. And those are the cases that are reported — we also know that most incidents are never reported,” said study author Alexandra D. Long, a graduate student at American University and a member of the Interpersonal Emotion 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 those more likely to commit sexual assault or rape. From federal statistics we know that 99% of people who commit rape are men (Rennison, 2002). We also know that perpetrators of sexual violence usually show strong narcissistic traits.”
“Narcissism by definition involves a lack of empathy, but many existing campus sexual assault prevention programs use ’empathy priming’ as a tool to try to increase empathy towards victims of rape and sexual assault,” the researcher explained .
Long and her co-author Nathaniel R. Herr noted that empathy priming has yet to be tested in a demographic at high risk of accepting rape myths, for example men with high levels of narcissism. The narcissistic reactance theory of rape states that certain narcissistic traits increase the likelihood that when a man rejects sexual advances, he will push to get what he wants rather than ceasing his pursuit. For example, narcissists tend to lack empathy, crave admiration, and have high standards of themselves — traits that might make them more likely to support problematic beliefs about rape.
“I wanted to explore what happens when narcissistic individuals are prompted to feel empathy for a victim of sexual violence,” Long said. “What happens on college campuses when would-be abusers undergo empathy priming exercises? Could this be a critical consideration in public health efforts to reduce sexual assault on campus?
Long and Herr launched a study to examine the interaction between narcissistic tendencies, empathy priming, and acceptance of rape myths in college-age men. A sample of 74 heterosexual males between the ages of 18 and 25 was recruited from a mid-Atlantic private university in the United States. They first filled out a questionnaire that rated two measures of empathy and four subtypes of narcissism — grandiose, vulnerable, pathological, and sexual.
For the experiment, the men were randomly assigned to either the empathy condition or the objective condition. Each group was then presented with a vignette describing a date rape scenario, but received different instructions. The empathy group received instructions asking them to “imagine how the woman feels” and “put themselves in her shoes,” while the target group was asked to “try to be as objective about the woman as possible ‘ and ‘Try to keep your distance. 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 another person’s emotional experience,” Long explained. “Narcissism is a trait that some of us have more or less in our personality, in the way we interact with the world. People who are more narcissistic than others seem to have a harder time with empathy. Individuals who engage in sexual violence tend to have higher levels of narcissism and lower levels of empathy than those who do not commit these acts. Acceptance of the rape myth is the endorsement of false, problematic beliefs about rape and sexual assault. As expected, perpetrators of sexual violence report higher acceptance of rape myths.”
Researchers found that participants with higher baseline levels of empathy endorsed lower acceptance of rape myths, while participants with higher baseline levels of narcissism endorsed higher acceptance of rape myths. Of the four types of narcissism, sexual narcissism had the strongest association with accepting rape myths.
The results further demonstrated an interaction between empathy priming and narcissism in accepting rape myths. In men with low vulnerable or pathological narcissism, the empathy condition reduced acceptance of the rape myth compared to the objective condition. But in men with highly vulnerable or pathological narcissism, the empathy condition actually increased acceptance of rape myths. In grandiose and sexual narcissism, acceptance of the rape myth was unaffected by empathy priming.
Worryingly, this suggests that men who were at higher risk of accepting rape myths—and therefore rape offenders—tolerated more biased beliefs about rape after being prepared to feel empathy for a fictional rape victim.
“Our study showed that empathy priming was associated with lower acceptance of rape myths in college men with lower narcissistic traits,” Long told PsyPost. “So for the men who are already at lower risk of sexual assault, this ’empathy priming’ technique was helpful in further reducing their risk of assault. However, when asked to feel empathy for a rape victim, the men with higher narcissistic traits reported a significantly higher level of acceptance of rape myths than those in the “objective” group (unprepared for empathy). This implies that using ’empathy primer’-based interventions with college men who are already at higher risk of committing sexual violence could exacerbate that risk.”
“Key takeaway: Colleges using empathy-priming programs to prevent on-campus sexual assault may consider measuring student personality traits first and not administering the intervention to individuals high in narcissism,” said Long. “Alternatively, universities may consider doing away with the empathy priming method altogether and instead implementing an objective/fact-based educational program (i.e., providing students with evidence-based information about sexual violence and its consequences). This would probably work better with those individuals who are more likely to become offenders.”
The study, like all research, has some limitations. “First, our sample was from a medium-sized private East Coast university,” Long explained. “We did not include LGBTQ+ individuals in the study; The participants were straight, cisgender male college students. We did not ask the participants whether they had committed or been victims of sexual violence. Therefore, the data from our sample may not generalize to other populations, and we did not assess self-reported offending rates.
“Many issues remain to be addressed,” Long continued. “Our study did not focus on other known correlates of sexual assault, such as alcohol use, recognition of consent, prior assault, childhood sexual abuse, or antisocial personality traits, although there are other diligent researchers studying these constructs. While there is growing evidence of the differential outcomes of sexual violence among sexual and gender minorities, we have not examined how the patterns identified in our data might impact these marginalized groups.”
“Finally, narcissism is grossly underrated in the research literature,” the researcher added. “There is still much we do not understand about the development, behavior, interpersonal impact, and psychosocial consequences of individuals with high levels of narcissistic traits. Given our current understanding of the personal and societal harms associated with narcissism, it is imperative that we continue to examine this construct so that we can better understand how to intervene.”
Despite the need for future research, the new results indicate the importance of including personality measures in future sexual assault intervention studies. In addition, the results have implications for the development of prevention programs at universities.
“Narcissism doesn’t mean taking a lot of selfies or hoping for high views on your social media posts,” Long said. “Narcissism is a personality trait that, above a certain level of intensity and along with many other factors, can contribute to mental health problems 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 seeking 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 seeking help or would like more information, call the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) at 1-800-656-4673 from anywhere in the US or chat with someone online via https ://hotline.rainn.org/online.”
Narcissism, Empathy, and Rape Myth Acceptance Among Heterosexual College Males study was authored by Alexandra D. Long and Nathaniel R. Herr.