Study Feels Out Empathy in Students

Kristen Zaleski

A student who recently lost her grandmother asked to postpone her exams. One professor said no but reached out to see how she was coping. Another professor gave her an extension but was cold in his demeanor. Asked whom she felt was more empathetic, and the answer was surprising: the professor who declined her request.

USC School of Social Work Clinical Assistant Professor Kristen Zaleski says that while the definition of empathy is fairly straightforward, it’s a concept that many people find hard to grasp.

“Empathy requires a cognitive understanding and a felt experience at the same time,” Zaleski explained. “You’re sitting with someone and understanding and feeling the pain or whatever emotion that they happen to be going through. In social work, that’s so much of the beginning part of the work. You need to engage a patient and put into words how you’re feeling it so the client feels that you really understand.”

Given the importance of empathy in the social work context, Zaleski and a team of USC professors set out to answer the question: Can we engineer humans to have more empathy?

Zaleksi and Clinical Associate Professor Juan Araque led their first study on empathy by comparing the empathy levels of first- and second-year social work students. Other researchers included professors Michal Sela-Amit, Kimberly Finney, Bianca Harper and Jennifer Lewis. Approximately 300 students were measured using a scale that tested for both cognitive and affective empathy.

“We found that the empathy levels were pretty evenly divided between first- and second-year students. To us, it was surprising because we would teach empathy [in classes and in our interactions with students] so you would think that second-year students would be more empathetic,” Zaleski said.

The research also found that women were more empathetic than men, and students in the online program struggled more with emotional contagion, or the tendency to feel what the other person feels in the moment, than students on campus.

Out of the 300 participants, the researchers interviewed 30 students about their early childhood, their understanding of empathy and how well they felt empathy was taught in school. Across the board, the students said they felt they had increased their ability to empathize over the years, contradicting earlier results that showed no change in the levels of empathy.

Empathy conundrum


The capacity for empathy is believed to be innate in most humans. The first signs of exhibiting empathy typically appear in infancy; newborn babies will cry in response to the cries of another infant. What’s more, brain imaging studies in babies and their mothers show that in times of distress, the same part of the mother’s brain gets highlighted in the baby’s brain.

Recent research has also shown that while empathy is natural, the development of it requires nurturing — it is, in fact, a learned trait that may be affected by early experience.

“Empathy is a building block of self-identity,” Zaleski said. “The best example is mothers and their children. When they’re born, children can’t use words to convey their emotions. So when a child hits his head on a coffee table … by showing the child that the mother also feels pain, that’s how kids learn to be empathetic. You have to mirror through your children how they feel so they can begin to understand how they themselves feel.”

To better gauge the development of empathy, Zaleski and Araque conducted a follow-up study, this time focusing only on first-year students. Using the same empathy scale from the first study, the students completed a pretest — prior to receiving any social work training — and a post-test — at the end of their first year at USC. 

“We wanted to look at where they started and where they ended. And nothing! There was no difference in what they were reporting on the empathy scale,” Zaleski said. “The result is social work school is not teaching our students any more empathy than they’re starting with.”

And it’s not only USC. The same study was conducted at schools in Pennsylvania and Canada, and the results were identical.

Similar to the first study, however, every student during interviews said they believed social work school had helped them become more empathetic. So what explains this gap?

Looking for answers


Zaleski considers a few possibilities. The empathy measure used in the studies may not be working well. For the next study, she plans to use an additional measure to more accurately assess participants. Another explanation may be that the empathy window has passed. Approximately 98 percent of the brain is developed by the age of 5 so the timeframe for developing empathy may predominantly be in the first five years of life, Zaleski said.

“It may change subjectively, as in, people think they have become more empathetic over the years,” she said. “But even though they can cognitively appraise better than before, it doesn’t necessarily mean they can feel empathy.”

The third reason for the disparity may simply be that professors are not doing a good job teaching empathy to students.

“Basically we ended up with more questions than answers,” she said.

Zaleski hopes to address these questions with more empathy studies. She plans to conduct the pretest/post-test study again — using two different empathy measures — with the same students at the end of their second year and again in five years.

In addition, this fall she intends to test the empathy levels of professors and their students and follow them through a semester. If one professor proves to be significantly better at teaching empathy to his students, Zaleski hopes to do a case study on that professor to see what he’s doing right compared to other professors.

“Being empathetic is such a crucial skillset for social workers because, for the most part, we aren’t working with people who have had good lives and are happy. They’re usually suffering from something, whether it’s depression or addiction,” she said. “[This research] has impacted how I work with students … because as a social worker if you can’t do this, you’re never going to keep a client.

“If [it turns out that] we can’t teach empathy in adulthood, I see it as an existential crisis,” she continued. “And if that’s the case, we really need to focus on developing this in early childhood.”