The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

Measuring Social Empathy: Tool for Researchers to Effect Social Change

Sunday, January 19, 2014: 11:45 AM
HBG Convention Center, Room 003B River Level (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Elizabeth A. Segal, PhD, Professor, Arizona State University, Phoenix, AZ
Background & Purpose:

Increased empathic insight into structural inequalities can promote social and economic justice (Loeb, 1999).  For example, macro perspective-taking as applied through social empathy can improve social relations by decreasing prejudice and stereotyping (Van Bavel & Cunnigham, 2009).  While the principle of applying empathy to social systems has been advocated by those who study the psychology of moral development (Hoffman, 2011), little has been done to conceptualize the relationship between interpersonal empathy (IE) and social empathy (SE), nor measure these constructs.  This study examined the relationship between interpersonal empathy and social empathy using the Interpersonal and Social Empathy Index.  Insight into this relationship can help in teaching community engagement and action.

Research Hypotheses:

It was hypothesized that 1) high measures of social empathy would correlate with high levels of interpersonal empathy and 2) high interpersonal empathy does not necessarily correlate with high social empathy. 


Data for this study were drawn from a sample of undergraduate students enrolled in introductory social work courses.  Data were collected using Qualtrics, an online survey tool.  A 38 item instrument using a 6 point Likert scale was used to measure the constructs of interpersonal empathy and social empathy. The sample consisted of 450 participants, 66% of whom were female. The mean age of the sample was 23 years.  Latino (16%), White (52%), Asian (8%), multi race (8%), African American (5%) and American Indian (2%) participants were included in this study.  Mplus version 7.0 was used to complete the analysis.  


A latent class analysis estimate of the full model using one-step maximum likelihood was conducted to divide the participants into 9 classes with high, medium and low levels of interpersonal and social empathy and compare the probabilities by class. The stability of the classifications was due to the fact that the measurement model separated the observations well, producing high levels of relative entropy that imply low classification error.  The distribution of the nine possible combinations fell along the diagonal, such that 23.5% of the sample displayed low IE/low SE, 25.3% medium IE/medium SE, and 16% high IE/high SE.  Only 1.3% were classified as high IE/low SE, while 4.5% were classified as low IE and high SE.

Conclusion & Implications:

Analyses of the data supported the hypotheses.  These findings suggest that high levels of social empathy are unlikely to exist without corresponding high levels of interpersonal empathy.  However, not all those with high levels of interpersonal empathy also have high levels of social empathy.  Social empathy can lead to greater understanding of social and economic injustice, which may lead to action to ameliorate those injustices.  Improving social empathy may be a conduit for effecting societal well-being.  This study suggests that the first step toward building social empathy is to ensure that individuals have well developed levels of interpersonal empathy.  Knowing this starting point can improve the chances for social change, and having an instrument to measure these constructs provides researchers with a tool to assess interventions designed to improve empathic abilities.