Empathy Can Be Learned, But How? Research on the Impact of Empathy Training | Pollack Peacebuilding Systems

Summary of:

Bas-Sarmiento, P., Fernández-Gutiérrez, M., Baena-Baños, M., Correro-Bermejo, A., Sergio Soler-Martins, P., & de la Torre-Moyano, S. (2020). Empathy training in health sciences: A systematic review. Nurse Education in Practice, 44, 1-13. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nepr.2020.102739

Background & Theory

This article explored how empathy training can impact people in the workplace, in this case, specifically those in the healthcare field. This was done through a systematic review of available research relating to empathy training, what we know, and what we can further study.

Research Questions

Bas-Sarmiento et al., in “Empathy training in health sciences: A systematic review” (2020), seek to address the following questions:

    1. What is the impact of empathy training on those in the healthcare field?
    2. Does experiential or humanistic training provide better results?
    3. Are the theoretical models presented coherent with the dimensions evaluated?


The authors conducted a systematic review of available research from the years 2000 through 2017. Six databases total were used and multiple checklists were utilized to help prevent bias and to test the quality of the review (MERSQI, COREQ, Guidelines for Conducting and Reporting Mixed Research in the Field of Counseling and Beyond, and PRISMA). Once evaluated for the correct criteria, the final sample for the systematic review was settled on reviewing 23 articles (including 4 other systematic reviews). The review of these articles focused on evaluating the design of the study, the empathy measured, whether it was experiential or humanistic intervention (or a mixture of both), what the results were, how long the duration of the study was, and what the study’s quality was. Further evaluated was the theoretical frameworks used in these studies (some studies did not present one). The data is summarized in tables available in the full article.


The majority of the studies evaluated did show an increase in empathy as a result and were focused on experiential interventions. Only 15.78% of studies evaluated were focused on human sciences interventions/trainings. The studies that did not necessarily show an increase in empathy did seem to have some improvements in at least one area related to empathy. At least one study suggested that the empathy learned can decrease over time. It was shown that humanities-based interventions overall showed very big impacts from the training on the participants’ empathy, but the authors also note that there are potentially some areas to be improved in the studies themselves.

The authors noted that there is some disconnect between the theoretical frameworks proposed in the studies and the dimensions that were trained vs. those evaluated. The authors also noted how it would be helpful to understand how the patients ultimately benefited from more empathetic healthcare professionals and not just focusing on self-evaluations from study participants, as well as understanding the time frames that these trainings are most effective.

What This Means

  • Empathy most certainly can be taught and improved in people. There appears to be no cut-and-dry way to do this, though, and both experiential and humanities-based trainings and interventions might be useful (though current research more heavily supports experiential trainings).
  • One thing that might impact empathy training is better understanding the people involved, as these studies show that some groups of people tend to be more empathetic than others.
  • It will be helpful for researchers to further evaluate how long these kinds of interventions should be implemented for best effects, how to ensure the empathy gained remains for more than a short term frame, and what a good and accurate theoretical model for this might be.

Final Takeaway

For consultants: The biggest takeaway is that empathy can be learned, and is very important for use in resolving and preventing conflicts. If we can better understand how to teach others empathy, we can see longer-lasting peace.

For everyone: Self-evaluating is very important for us all to do regularly so we can be the best versions of ourselves. Try looking at your empathy levels – is this something you could benefit to grow in?

Natalie Davis

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