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(Gerdes + 2010)

Conceptualising and Measuring Empathy

Karen E. Gerdes*, Elizabeth A. Segal, and Cynthia A. Lietz
British Journal of Social Work (2010) 40, 2326–2343
Advance Access publication March 31, 2010

  • reviews a history of the term empathy
  • reviews some of the measurements

The purpose of this article is to briefly review the most influential existing literature on conceptualizing and measuring empathy. In addition, we consider a second, highly salient body of literature emerging from the relatively new field of social cognitive neuroscience, which uses brain imaging to help identify the physiological components of emotional and cognitive processes. We believe that social cognitive neuroscience can assist social work in clarifying concrete, consistent ways of defining and measuring empathy as a neurological phenomenon. 

Finally, we assess some of the most recent social work-related empirical intervention-based research on empathy. Combining all  these research traditions leads to a compelling possibility: a unified, consistent, and robust way to define and measure the empathic responses that help form the foundation of just and beneficent social structures.


"Definitions of empathy have been semantically vague or confusing. As a result, conceptualisations and measurement techniques for empathy vary greatly from study to study—so much so that it has been difficult to engage in meaningful comparisons or make significant conclusions about how we define and measure empathy. "  (GERDES + 2010)


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