Empathy – can it be measured?

Empathy is a skill that is valued in every situation, both socially and professionally, however it is typically difficult to quantify and the absence of the trait often only becomes clear once it is too late. It has been historically difficult to measure empirically[1] and to operationally define. During the 1970s and 1980s, 21 different definitions of empathy were detected in the social work literature[2], and the accepted definition has fluctuated dramatically over the decades. In the late 1990s, researchers in Italy discovered ‘mirror neurons’ – nerve cells that allow humans to involuntarily understand someone else’s experience, solidifying the source and existence of empathy.

It is this rocky history of defining and measuring the empathy trait that makes the Human Capability Standards so valuable. The standards quantify the skill and allows us to determine which courses and experiences deliver this outcome, and to what level, ranging from 1 to 5, and thus identify candidates who possess this skill.

Under the framework, indicators of proficiency of this capability include:

  • Sensitive to the needs of others and knows how to comfort them
  • Responds appropriately in emotionally charged or difficult situations
  • Seeks to understand how they personally respond to people and situations
  • Aware of own emotional responses and feelings
  • Sensitive to needs of others
  • Strong sense of how conflict may accentuate certain emotions and behaviours
  • Non-judgemental and respectful

Empathy is critical as it is a trait that is required across several career paths including allied health, medicine, law and customer service. Empathy is virtually impossible to automate because it is based on contextual feelings and emotions. Because of this, empathy will become an invaluable skill in the future of work as we look to differentiate candidates based on their human capabilities, rather than technical ability. It is one of the key factors that sets humans apart from machines.

Having the ability to operationalise this inherent trait and easily identify those who possess it is invaluable and presents a clear advantage for employers in identifying candidates, for course administrators in differentiating their course and for candidates looking to stand out against their colleagues.

[1] Lawrence, E. J., Shaw, P., Baker, D., Baron-Cohen, S., & David, A. S. (2004). Measuring empathy: reliability and validity of the Empathy Quotient. Psychological Medicine, 34, 911-924.

[2] Gerdes, K., Segal, E., & Lietz, C. (2010). Conceptualising and measuring empathy. British Journal of Social Work, 40, 2326-2343.