Declining Empathy in Social Work Students

I read an interesting article recently, from the Journal of Social Work Education, the title was “An Evaluation of Prepracticum Helping Skills Training for Graduate Social Work Students.” The abstract is reproduced below:

“Although foundational practice classes play a key role in helping prepracticum students develop counseling skills, we know little about the effectiveness of this form of helping skills training. This study assessed the effect of helping skills training delivered in foundational practice classes on proximal indicators of counseling skills acquisition, including measures of counseling self-efficacy, empathy, anxiety, and hindering self-awareness or rumination. Participating students made significant gains in counseling self-efficacy that were maintained at 3-month follow-up. Reductions in anxiety, rumination, and personal distress in interpersonally challenging situations were observed at follow-up, indicating that students made a successful transition to the field following training. The frequency of large-group role plays in particular was related to gains in students’ counseling self-efficacy.”

The purpose of the study was to examine basic counselling training completed by graduate social work students who had not completed a practicum, and whether students maintained those gains at follow-up. Additionally, they wanted to know if particular training methods of training were better at producing positive outcomes.

One really interesting element that was noted in this study, which has been observed in other professionals (e.g. physicians, see Neumann et. al, 2011), is a reduction of empathy as they proceed through training. In Gockel & Burton’s study, they administered the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI). This tool has four subscales: Perspective-Taking, Fantasy, Empathic Concern, Personal Distress.

The Personal Distress subscale, which measures feelings of unease and anxiety around people showing strong emotion, showed a decrease as the social workers proceed through training. This resulted in an overall decrease in the IRI score of the students, which appeared as they had less empathy, but in reality they were simply becoming more comfortable with their clients.

This is really exciting, because it shows that the students did not experience a decrease in empathy as has long been documented. It also suggests that better tools to measure empathy may be necessary, or the IRI scores used should exclude the Personal Distress scale.

The other interesting thing was that the IRI scores on the other three subscales which were already very high did not increase or decrease. This was explained as the students likely entering with high levels of empathy, but hopefully a tool could work with the ceiling effects.

Other notes that I made while reading the article, that may be useful to people working on helplines, in counselling, etc.:

  • Roleplays only help skill development if the roleplay is successful; if it’s unsuccessful it can interfere with skill development and confidence and so should be used once individual skills have been mastered
  • Other tools used included the Counselor Activity Self-Efficacy Scale (CASES), the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI), the Reflection Rumination Questionnaire (RRQ)
  • Large group roleplays increased helping skills self-efficacy, while instructor examples did not


All in all, super interesting article! Good read.


Gockel, A., & Burton, D.L. (2014) An Evaluation of Prepracticum Helping Skills Training for Graduate Social Work Students. Journal of Social Work Education. 101-119

Neumann, M., Edelhäuser, F., Tauschel, D., Fischer, M.R., Wirtz, M., Woopen, C., Haramati, A., Scheffer, C. (2011) “Empathy decline and its reasons: a systematic review of studies with medical students and residents”. Academic Medicine. 86(8):996-1009 doi: 10.1097/ACM.0b013e318221e615.

Cite this article as: MacDonald, D.K., (2015), "Declining Empathy in Social Work Students," retrieved on December 9, 2022 from

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