Harvard Mental Health Letter

Measuring empathy during psychotherapy

Why listening to patients is a prerequisite for empathy and may be crucial for healing.

Research indicates that psychotherapy is most helpful when patients think their therapists empathize with them. Patients are more likely to be satisfied with their treatment and more likely to accept their therapists' suggestions. At the same time, a lack of perceived empathy is one of the best predictors of a negative outcome in psychotherapy and increases the likelihood of malpractice litigation.

Most efforts to learn about the biological basis of empathy have involved imaging techniques to determine which areas of the brain become activated when one person empathizes with another. Investigators at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) decided to employ a different tactic to get at the roots of empathy. They studied actual clinical encounters between patients and therapists, as they were happening, to compare patients' subjective perceptions of empathy with an objective physiologic measure taken at the same time.

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