Episode 22 — Empathy

empathyChris and Jeff discuss why engineers are sometimes seen as cold, heartless bastards who refuse to be team players. Oh yeah, and how that might be linked to a lack of empathy.

  • A recent journal article claims that engineering students have less empathy than students in other fields of study. Chato Rasoal, Henrik Denielsson & Tomas Jungert (2012): Empathy among students in engineering programmes, European Journal of Engineering Education, 37:5, 427-435.
  • Our guest for this episode is Jim Heilman, who appeared previously in our episode on recruiting. He thinks that the whole empathy thing with engineers is a perception problem.
  • Employers don’t usually ask about empathetic skills when looking for technical personnel, although the ability to “listen” is considered important.
  • On the whole, women are more empathetic than men, and empathy tends to increase with age and level of education.
  • We also tend to more empathetic toward those that share cultural and geographical backgrounds. Thus, we may have to work at being sufficiently empathetic towards those with different values and traditions.
  • Jim believes employers assume all candidates to be sufficiently empathetic, even through the evidence would indicate otherwise.
  • Taking candidates out to lunch is a common ploy to see how potential employees treat others, especially those who are not in positions of authority.
  • Chris recalls a quote by Samuel Johnson, “The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good.”
  • A study out of Case Western Reserve University indicates that firing up the neuron network we use for empathy causes our analytic abilities to be suppressed. Anthony I. Jack, Abigail Dawson, Katelyn Begany, Regina L. Leckie, Kevin Barry, Angela Ciccia, Abraham Snyder. fMRI reveals reciprocal inhibition between social and physical cognitive domains. NeuroImage, 2012
  • Chris wonders what the biological advantage might be in this trade off between empathy and analysis.
  • Jim has noticed that women seem expected to show more empathy than men, especially by other women.
  • A recent Forbes article detailed an interview with author Jon Ronson. In his book, The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry, Mr. Ronson notes that about 4 percent of CEOs display signs of psychopathy, four times the incidence found in the population at large.
  • Jeff recalls reading Thick Face, Black Heart: The Warrior Philosophy for Conquering the Challenges of Business and Life. It talked about the importance of having certain professionals, such as surgeons, be emotionally distanced from their patients.
  • A ranking of psychopathy incidence by profession shows CEOs leading the list, followed by lawyers, media personalities, salespeople, and surgeons.
  • There seems to be a gap between the knowledge skills and characteristics that a graduate engineer is expected to hold, and what skills and characteristics these engineers actually have.
  • Jim feels that engineers may be getting unfairly criticized, as a lack of empathy seems widespread in a number of industries.
  • Today’s college students display less empathy than previous generations.
  • In Steven Covey’s book, the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, the fifth habit is “Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood.”
  • Chris and Jim debate the need for empathy in the field of engineering.
  • Jim has found that sharing a meal with someone can lower tension in the workplace.
  • Engineering parents are twice as likely as non-engineering parents to have autistic children.
  • When we pay attention to the emotions of others, we start to mirror those emotions ourselves. This is the topic of the book, Mirroring People: The New Science of How We Connect with Others.
  • Steve Blank has written about developing empathic skills by emulating empathy.
  • The article about engineering students having a lack of empathy generated quite a bit of response on Reddit and Hacker News.
  • Listeners can review our podcast in iTunes!
  • Thanks to giveawayboy for the drawing titled “You unlocked all the channels in me.” Podcast theme music provided by Paul Stevenson

    5 thoughts on “Episode 22 — Empathy”

    1. This is a great podcast. It made me think.

      It’s interesting you found it obvious that people would want a surgeon focused on science instead of empathy. I suspect many non-engineers would rather have a surgeon who really cares than one with a higher rate of success. This would be an interesting survey.

      At one point when your guest was talking about empathy, I started wondering how to separate empathy from morbid curiosity. Sometimes I see people who appear to care about people more, remember their family’s names, remember their problems, and so on. I wonder, though, how much of it gossipy fascination with thinking about someone else’s business. I have seen people show apparent interest in an office conflict and lose interest quickly when they discover there’s no angle they can play, no train wreck to gawk at, and no easy way they can hold themselves to be morally superior to anyone in the conflict. That’s pathetic, much worse than an engineer who just isn’t interested in people.

      I do not understand the psychopath CEO thing at all. Are you saying Welsh is lying about thinking laying people off is the right thing to do? Or do you think he truly believes it and is wrong? What if there’s some truth to it? What if keeping people in jobs out of a sense of charity keeps them from doing something where their abilities are desperately needed? Another question I had is why the CEOs were psychopathic but the shareholders are not. The word psychopath is becoming like the word “terrorist” — a meaningless word that conveys only that the speaker completely condemns (possibly for very good reasons) the person in question.

    2. Personal observation: In seven years since my divorce, I have dated several men, three of them engineers. I am considered a very perceptive person. Is it coincidence that each of these men had moderate to severe issues with the ability to feel empathy toward other humans? One I determined had true narcissistic personality disorder, a sociopathy that is very disturbing. (His former wife had come to the same conclusion. Alas, it took her years to discover the fact, after bearing four children with him.) The other two had varying degrees of an empathic deficit – one of them seemed to lack the innate emotional ability to understand how his insensitive, self-centered or inconsiderate behaviors (including his year-long extra-marital relationship early in his marriage) could or would hurt others, damage trust, or damage the relationship.

      My conclusion is that, if empathy-deprived individuals wished, they could mimic empathy. In other words, though it may not become a genuine personality trait for them, they could learn to practice empathy, if only for the sake of improving their relationships and causing less distress and pain to others in their lives. It has been done. Despite the fact that it is an artifice, the end result is improved relations, which is positive in itself. Perhaps someday mankind will discover a way to adapt the neuroplasticity of the mind to develop certain abilities and traits previously thought irreparable or static.

      Personally, I believe that empathy is a critical human trait, one which I desire, admire and require in other people.

      1. I do not understand what’s the big deal about having affairs except for the lying. (I do see how they lead to undesirable repercussions.) To me the lying, though, is huge. If close friends and partners can’t trust what I’m saying, what’s the point in talking to me?

        We can be good honest people without having what I consider “empathy”. I feel like awareness of feelings is like a 15kHz sine wave into a speaker that is on the edge of my 38 y/o hearing but makes my 5- and 3-y/o cover their ears in apparent annoyance and pain.

        As I said in my last comment, some thing that pass for empathy strike me a voyeurism and schadenfreude.

        People can be stoic and detached from the world but respectful and have muted feelings that seem like a big deal to the person having them– and maybe that’s okay.

        To me an aspie who lies and cheats is just like anyone with a character flaw. It’s not about their being lying and cheating aspie. They’re just lying and cheating humans who happen to be aspie. On the other side of the spectrum, politicians are just as bad. I imagine it’s the same everywhere in between.

        1. The human ability to feel empathy is one of the intellectual and emotional forces that enables and inspires us to do good toward humans, creatures, society, and the environment. Conversely, empathy makes humans less likely to be detached, self-involved, careless, insensitive, callous, dishonest and hurtful. In the case of those with a severe empathic deficit – those with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, sociopaths, psychopaths, etc. – the damage they cause within their personal and professional relationships is quite serious and destructive.

    3. P.S. Individuals who are deficient in and absent of an ability to truly feel empathy do not know what they are missing. How could they understand the value, if it seems not of no direct benefit to them? But those who are more whole see the intrinsic value of empathy, an important quality that sets humans apart from some other creatures and apart from computers and robots.

      I once came to know a man with N.P.D. It was a very disturbing experience. His life was full of manipulations, misrepresentations and lies, even about the most sacred of matters (sacred in the general, not religious sense). There was a black hole where his soul should have been.

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