Tag Archives: autism

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.
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  • Thanks to giveawayboy for the drawing titled “You unlocked all the channels in me.” Podcast theme music provided by Paul Stevenson