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Engineers and empathy

Are engineering students less empathetic than health care students? The results of a study carried out at Linköping University seem to indicate that yes, this is the case. The study, carried out by psychology researcher Chato Rasoal and two colleagues, covered over 200 students from six different study programmes.

The researchers measured empathy, using well established questionnaires which reveal such things as imagination, the ability to see things from another person’s point of view, propensity to care about others and also one’s own worries and anxieties.

chato-rasoal

“Empathy can have both a cognitive and an affective aspect,” Rasoal explains. The ability to see things from another person’s point of view is mainly cognitive, while caring about others is a more affective component.

Previous research has shown that engineers have a lower level of empathy than future doctors and nurses. This might sound natural: surely there is not so much need for empathy when working with machines and calculations? But, Rasoal does not agree.

“Engineering graduates often go into high positions in companies, where they have to lead large teams. This requires good communication and social skills. Modern global business also requires intercultural skills, the ability to communicate and cooperate with people from completely different cultures.

The students’ responses showed clear differences between health care and engineering students. The latter scored significantly lower on empathy. However, the difference decreased when the data was corrected for gender difference. It is well known that women are more empathetic than men.

Two groups of engineers participated: computer scientists and applied physicists. For the latter, a marked difference from the health care students remained, even when factoring in gender differences. In the case of computer scientists the difference was largely erased. The researchers have a theory for why: the computer scientists were taught using PBL, problem based learning, which was not the case for the applied physicists. Rasoal believes that this may influence the level of empathy.

“In problem based learning you do a lot of group work, you have to listen to others and accept other people’s thoughts and feelings. Otherwise it doesn’t work.

In a study being carried out at present they want to see if this theory can be confirmed. For five terms they have been following computer science students to see if PBL influences the ability to empathise. The data is currently being analysed.


Anika Agebjörn 2013-01-14



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Last updated: 2013-05-30