E. Gerdes is an Associate Professor in the School of Social work at Arizona
State University at the Downtown Campus. She earned a PhD in Social Work
from Florida State University. Her research interests include empathy,
empathy measurement, poverty, conation and issues related to Latino
"We propose that a targeted and structured
explication of empathy is a useful, if not essential, foundation
for social work theory and practice. We outline a social work
framework for empathy, one that is rooted in an interdisciplinary
context, emphasizes recent findings in the field of social
cognitive neuroscience, and yet is embedded in a social work
context..., students can learn to use their knowledge, values, and
skills, informed by empathy, to take empathic action consciously."
* Associate Professor, School of Social
Work, Arizona State University
* Research interests are empathy and empathy measurements
* At Arizona State for 16 years. Last sabbatical in 2007 read the
neuroscience literature on empathy. Got excited about the four neural
that they had observed and identified. Went through all her social
career as student and professor, without hearing anyone talking about
this way. So how can we apply this in the classroom, how do we bring
conscience awareness the aspect-sharing component and teach the three
components, perspective taking, emotion regulation and self/other
* Now thinking about a new area, about how to teach and cultivate
empathy in the
classroom, apply it to Social Work
02:28 Article: ‘Teaching Empathy, a Framework rooted in social
neuroscience and social justice”
* In social work, up to now, never
connected the emotion regulation piece with
empathy so need to teach student that there is this automatic
mirroring aspect. If you are with a client who is sad and you start to
feel sad this
feeling can overwhelm you unless you know how to regulate that
other piece is that this sadness, this mirroring, happens
unconsciously. Now at least, they are aware of the process – “I am
the client is feeling. I need to keep that boundary there but at the
same time, try to
understand what is behind the client’s anger/sadness”.
* Importance of emotion regulation. Example is single parent with
Parent may be capable of mirroring and therefore knowing when their
frustrated. But what they don’t know is that they are absorbing that
Then if they can’t separate baby’s frustration from their own, and
they don’t have
emotion regulation, that is when they become frustrated and
consequently at risk
for abusive behaviour to stop the child’s frustration when in reality,
they are trying
to stop their own frustration.
* Importance of self-soothing when a Social Worker is working with
clients who are
angry or depressed or frustrated.
* So in teaching social work, it’s important to talk about empathy,
what it is, how is
it experienced, how recognize it - by bringing it to a conscious
start to engage in specific tools to help cultivate it, such as
* For perspective taking: you need to have information – for example,.
There’s a punishing, condescending way of talking about it in the
discourse. A lot of this comes from a lack of information as to why
want to come to America. All kinds of ‘Boogieman’ stories about this
jobs, they’re all criminals, and want to kill us. People respond to
this with fear and
this fear overrides any natural empathy that would otherwise be there.
perspective-taking is very cognitive and is about giving people
provide a context for social problems and issues so people can
07:33 How are you defining empathy?
* I like the Social cognitive
neuroscientists’ definition - an induction process where
our bodies and minds are taking in information at rapid speed
scale), processing this information partly at an unconscious level,
the mirroring and
aspect-sharing piece, and part of it is cognitive. The end result of
this process is
that you can basically understand the feelings, emotions, intentions
even sometimes the thoughts of the other person where you’re not just
world as they see it but also feeling the world as they feel it. And
happening very rapidly.
* The more skills our students have, especially those cognitive ones
that we can
actually work on like perspective taking and emotion regulation, the
that process will be and the more empathy you will have.
2. Mirrored/emotional empathy based on mirror neurons, we can mirror
3. Imaginative, perspective taking cognitive empathy. Take the point
of view of
4. Empathic action
* Fourth level is important in social work. Once students have
empathy, what do you do with it, how do you serve someone. You don’t
transform this into pity or even sympathy. You don’t want to enable
You want to keep it open, how do I empower my client? If I have
better see the world as my client sees it. It might give me some
insight into better
how to facilitate the client’s own empowerment. Social workers need to
not to enable their client and not to do for them, things that they
should be doing
11:29 Importance of Self-empathy.
* It’s key because those who are
self-aware about their own feelings and thoughts
are quicker to learn to separate those from the ones they are picking
* Self empathy improves ability to articulate about empathy and
feelings. It gives
you a vocabulary.
* One block to empathy is that some people have mentioned that you can
yourself in empathy. They don’t know who they are and who the other
is. That is
why self-awareness is important. Being able to have a boundary and
being able to
know you can let someone have their pain and you don’t have to take it
can step into it for a few seconds to feel it and appreciate it, but
then step back
out of it to maintain your empathy otherwise you get burned out.
* There is a real gap with respect to self-awareness. There seems to
be no education
to provide children with these skills. Self-empathy and knowledge is
understanding each other and to benefit from the empathy that we feel
* Mindfulness and how critical it is to emotion regulation. A lot of
kids don’t have
self-soothing behaviour, how to articulate or manage their emotions
behaviour. There is a real lack of this kind of training in the K-12
system. It’s probably because it is seen as ‘New Age’. The amount of
research now backing up how useful this is to us, it is really
16:51 A self-report for empathy
* The one in use now was created in
1980 and it’s not very effective. It’s more a
measure of sympathy and only a small perspective-taking part of
Social Work you really need something to show interventions are
actually in fact
cultivating empathy. After this step, then I will be more involved in
at the K to 12 level taking building blocks and skills into those
Finding ways to effectively measure empathy.
* Created with colleagues, an Empathy Assessment Index. It’s being
validity and reliability. Currently writing a study comparing a group
Work professionals with populations known for empathy deficits such as
offenders, domestic violence perpetrators. The test held up well in
those groups. Our index is looking solid. It could maybe replace the
Interpersonal Reactivity Index. Our index is more informed by the
Aspect Sharing/Mirror Empathy/An empathy curriculum
* Very coherent and observable idea that there are 4 neural networks
in our brain
that help us experience empathy. We need to make sure that all four
and like any muscle, we need to work the networks, build them, and
them. Teach them how to regulate emotions, take someone else’s
identify self/other boundaries and help understand that mirrored
happens: an emotion contagion to their job.
* Next step to measurement will be working on a curriculum, first for
students, working on mindfulness and other techniques that can help
cognitive skills. After that, how do we make this more
particularly for K to 12 groups?
23:45 Teaching empathy and building a
culture of empathy
* Social Work curriculum will be
transferrable to other disciplines such as
counselling, nursing, psychology. Protective factor is important.
Nurses and Social
Workers are susceptible to compassion fatigue and burnout. They are
sensitive and empathic. They need to not be overwhelmed to have a
* We need a culture of empathy. The skills Social Workers learn would
transferrable to their clients. Could teach/inform clients on how
working on them with respect to other family members. When one family
gets frustrated and angry, they all step into this dark place, and how
to stop it
from happening. Also how to talk to each other differently, take the
* The domino effect: it spreads. The more people that have these
skills, the more
empathy is understood, modelled, worked, taught, in the professions,
the home, at
school, the workplace the more we will have this culture of empathy.
27:30 How do we bring the empathy
conversation into the national dialogue?
* We seem to be hearing the word
empathy more in the public since Obama used it
in his campaigning. Also talk of candidates having an ‘empathy gap’.
media talks about it, there are no explanations of the word. Could be
education going on around these conversations. The word is used very
* Senate debates about Obama’s Supreme Court Justice Nomination: the
empathy was used around 500 times during the senate debates. You can
lack of understanding of the word. It’s apparent that many use the
synonymous with sympathy. Many felt empathy was inappropriate for a
But empathy is the core of the human contract. How can you do the job
empathy? Still a lot of misunderstanding and misinformation. This
would make a
great study! To look at the content of the debates for the use of the
empathy, and the contexts of the use. Would be interesting for US
have a hearing on what is empathy?
* Change the focus. Two parties are talking past each other and trying
to win debate
points. Focus is not on the people that need assistance or country’s
Need to stop the ‘debate habit’. Focus on the problem and challenge
from a values
place, where we listen and try to understand each other.
* How we define the problem often determines how we decide to tackle
problem. For example, if we define poverty as a moral failing, then
the policies we
create are attempts to make people more moral instead of fixing a
economic, education, health system that seems to be out of balance. So
what we need to do is find out how the various groups are defining the
problem and then find some common ground in those definitions. Right
isn’t happening – each side just wants to make their point and be
* Maybe educating politicians about empathy might be a good answer. A
people see empathy as a ‘touchy-feely’ kind of thing but it’s not. Its
Sympathy versus empathy
* Sympathy or pity leads us to give a homeless person a dollar.
Empathy on the
other hand, makes us ask the harder questions about what causes
what can we do to make sure that fewer people are homeless? This is
empathic action takes us, to empowerment.
* Often people think that empathic action is just sympathy and that
Workers want to do is give people handouts. In fact that’s not what we
do. We want to figure out ways to create jobs so they can work and
earn a living
wage. This is a harder conversation to have than a handout is.
* Until we have more empathy we’re probably going to keep walking away
those difficult conversations.
40:27 Empathy in Social Work at
* We are pioneers in the sense that we
are using the Social Cognitive Framework.
We are not necessarily pioneers in empathy. It has been a part of
profession for a long time. Throughout my career for many years, no
one had ever
framed empathy in such a concrete way that you could break it down and
understand how to cultivate it. That’s what we are trying to pioneer –
down more into the ways that our brain is processing this information
strengthen those parts of the brain through mindfulness techniques,
and education where we learn about the social contexts of people’s
problems. It is exciting and rejuvenating.
"The human brain evolved to ensure our survival. One
example of that survival instinct is our sense of competition –
historically, it’s part of what drives us to wage wars over power and
resources. But an equally powerful survival tactic is our ability to
love and cooperate with others.
“A lot of times, that story never gets told,” says Karen
Gerdes, a social worker at ASU. She is interested in empathy, which is
the ability to perceive the world from other people’s points of view and
to feel what they are feeling. Empathy is a complex emotion because it
involves both unconscious, involuntary responses and conscious,
cognitive processes. For example, suppose you’ve had a traumatic
experience, like losing a loved one."
A mile in their
shoes: understanding empathy
"Empathy is a relatively new word, only having come about in the 20th
century. Karen Gerdes, a social worker at ASU, explains what empathy is,
how to measure it and how we can develop it to improve our quality of
life and our relationships"
Articles on Empathy
Developing the Social Empathy Index: An Exploratory
"Abstract: Social empathy, the ability to understand people from
different socioeconomic classes and racial/ethnic backgrounds, with
insight into the context of institutionalized inequalities and
disparities, can inspire positive societal change and promote social
wellbeing. The value of teaching social empathy and creating
interventions that promote social empathy is enhanced by the ability
to measure and assess it. This article provides a validation of the
Social Empathy Index, a tool that practitioners can easily use to
assess individuals’ levels of interpersonal and social empathy. An
exploratory factor analysis was used to validate the instrument and
confirm the conceptual model for social empathy"
A Social Work Model for Empathy "Abstract: This article presents a social work model of empathy that
reflects the latest interdisciplinary research findings on empathy.
The model reflects the social work commitment to social justice. The
three model components are: 1) the affective response to another’s
emotions and actions; 2) the cognitive processing of one’s affective
response and the other person’s perspective; and 3) the conscious
decision-making to take empathic action. Mirrored affective responses
are involuntary, while cognitive processing and conscious
decision-making are voluntary. The affective component requires
healthy, neural pathways to function appropriately and accurately. The
cognitive aspects of perspective-taking, self-awareness, and emotion
regulation can be practiced and cultivated, particularly through the
use of mindfulness techniques. Empathic action requires that we move
beyond affective responses and cognitive processing toward utilizing
social work values and knowledge to inform our actions. By introducing
the proposed model of empathy, we hope it will serve as a catalyst for
discussion and future research and development of the model."
Benefits of Empathy The
list of studies in social work mentioning the importance of empathy is
studies on the importance of practitioner-to-client empathy would
fill several volumes. Examples include
Berg, Raminani, Greer, Harwood & Safren (2008)
Forrester, Kershaw, Moss & Hughes (2007);
Green & Christensen (2006);
Mishara et al. (2007); and
Sale, Bellamy, Springer & Wang (2008)].
While empathy is essential to an effective
client-worker relationship, it is also crucial that we help
populations such as at risk parents, partners and sex offenders to
develop and cultivate empathy
(Curtner-Smith et al., 2006,
Busby & Gardner, 2008;
Hunter, Figueredo, Becker & Malamuth, 2007;
Waldinger, Schultz, Hauser, Allen & Crowell
Parental empathy has been cited as crucial for
raising healthy children (Curtner-Smith et al., 2006)
Partner empathy is a key element in satisfying
relationships (Busby & Gardner, 2008; Waldinger et al., 2004).
Empathy is one of the core elements of healthy
relationships at every level,
"Research demonstrates that empathy is an important tool for
positive therapeutic intervention (Watson, 2002).
Clients experiencing empathy through treatment by others inhibits
antisocial behavior in children and adolescents (Eisenberg, Spinard,
& Sadovsky, 2005; Hoffman, 2000). Empathy inhibits aggression toward
others (Weisner & Silbereisen, 2003)
and promotes healthy personal development (Hoffman, 2001).
The lack of empathy is correlated with bullying, aggressive
behavior, violent crime, and sexual offending (Gini, Albieri,
Benelli, & Altoe, 2008; Joliffe & Farrington, 2004; Loper,
Hoffschmidt, & Ash, 2001; Sams & Truscott, 2004).
A practitioner's own level of empathy is correlated with positive
client outcomes (Forrester, Kershaw, Moss, & Hughes, 2008).
Weersing, Hoagwood, and Goldman (2005) completed a review of 52
child psychotherapy treatment studies and concluded that therapist
empathy, attention, and positive regard are essential to effective
Forrester et al. (2008) found that empathy is central to effective
communication in child protection situations. Empathy is critical to
both practitioner and client outcomes. "
We propose that a targeted and
structured explication of empathy is a useful, if not essential,
foundation for social work theory and practice. We outline a social
work framework for empathy, one that is rooted in an
interdisciplinary context, emphasizes recent findings in the field
of social cognitive neuroscience, and yet is embedded in a social
work context..., students can learn to use their knowledge, values,
and skills, informed by empathy, to take empathic action
Gerdes, K. E. (2011)..
Empathy, sympathy and pity: 21st Century
Definitions and Implications for Practice and Research..
Journal of Social Service
Research, 37(3), 5-12.(2011).
Gerdes, K. E. (2011)..
Introduction: 21st century
conceptualizations of empathy: Implications for social work practice and
research. Journal of
Social Service Research, 37(3), 1-4.(2011).
Gerdes, K. E., & Segal,
E. A., Jackson, K. F., & Mullins, J. (2011)..
Teaching empathy: A model rooted in
social cognitive neuroscience and social justice..
Journal of Social Work
Education, 47(1), DOI: 10.5175/JSWE.2011.200900085.(2011).