A Social Work Model of Empathy

Karen E. Gerdes, Elizabeth A. Segal


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.

Key Words: Empathy, Social Empathy, Social Cognitive Neuroscience


Empathy; Social Empathy; Social Cognitive Neuroscience

Full Text:


Copyright (c) 2009 Karen E. Gerdes, Elizabeth A. Segal


Indiana University School of Social Work
902 West New York Street
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA, 46202
Voice: 317.274.6705
FAX: 317.274.8630
TDD/TTY: 317.278-2050