Can empathy be engineered?

In general, engineering students might have a lower capacity to empathise from the outset. However, their education is not geared towards the development of these skills.
Dr Chato Rasoal
A new study from Linköping University has confirmed that engineering students are less empathetic than counterparts working in the caring professions. The findings, which have been published in the European Journal of Engineering Education, show that engineering students tend to be less capable of assuming the perspectives of others, than those studying to become doctors and nurses.

The researchers used a questionnaire to measure variables such as a respondent’s degree of imagination, their ability to assume the perspective of others and whether or not the student cared about others. In line with earlier studies, the team found that engineers had a lower degree of empathy than their peers within the healthcare sector.

Many would argue that this result is unsurprising. After all, doctors and nurses need to be empathetic in order to perform their duties effectively. At first glance, this is not necessarily the case for engineers. However, the study’s leader Dr Chato Rasoal, Lecturer in Psychology at Linköping University, contends that empathetic skills are more relevant to the field of engineering than one might initially assume.

I spoke to Dr Rasoal to find out why empathy is such a desirable trait for budding engineers. I began by asking about the size of the empathetic gap that he and his colleagues identified.

"We discovered a significant gap between the groups," he explained. "It is well known that females tend to be more empathetic than males. As a result, we found that some of the differences disappeared when we corrected for gender. However, we found that on the whole, engineers exhibited lower levels of empathy than healthcare students."

Of course, these findings raise a question over the direction of causality. Do engineering subjects attract less empathetic individuals, or are these students less empathetic because of the nature of their work?

"Well, that is the question," Dr Rasoal replied. "Unfortunately, it is a very difficult question to answer. As I am unaware of any studies that have addressed this issue, I can only speculate in regard to the answer. Personally, I think that it’s a combination of both. People who are interested in machinery and programming will naturally gravitate towards engineering. At the same time, engineering as a subject actually encourages students to concentrate on mathematics and physics; aspects which do not require empathy.

"If you look at healthcare students, you will find that their education includes lots of social interaction," continued Dr Rasoal. "In turn, these elements help to develop their empathetic abilities. For this reason, I think that we must consider a combination of factors. In general, engineering students might have a lower capacity to empathise from the outset. However, their education is not geared towards the development of these skills. It would be very interesting for somebody to test this hypothesis."

Whilst one might not immediately think of empathy as an essential skill for an engineer to possess, Dr Rasoal believes that it is an important component of success.

"Empathy is valuable within the field of engineering for a number of reasons," he explained. "Firstly, technical products are complicated. In order to design these products, engineers have to communicate with one another. Consequently, a new engineer must learn to work effectively as part of a team. It is vital for them to show interest in, and understanding of, the ideas and opinions of their peers. Secondly, there is an increasing tendency for companies to operate on a global scale. Members of staff – including engineers – must collaborate with colleagues from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Here, empathy plays a key role in allowing engineers to solve problems and to sell their products. Finally, engineers often become leaders within their respective organisations, so it is important for them to possess this type of competence. Leaders must be empathetic if they are to effectively communicate the key values of their company. The ability to empathise with their employees could help engineers to achieve effective organisation and positive results within commercial settings."

During the course of the study, Dr Rasoal and his colleagues surveyed two different groups of engineers: computer engineering students and students of applied physics. Surprisingly, the researchers discovered that those studying computer engineering were more empathetic than the physicists. One factor that might account for this finding is the fact that computer engineers undergo problem-based learning (PBL) throughout their education, whereas applied physicists do not. In light of this, I asked whether it might be possible to teach empathy via methods such as PBL.

"We believe that this strategy could be used to develop the empathetic skills of prospective engineers," Dr Rasoal replied. "Students involved in PBL, such as the computer engineers that took part in our study, have no choice but to listen and interact with one another. PBL promotes equality in terms of participation in discussion. In order to solve problems, students must consider their situation from a variety of perspectives. They learn that there are many different forms of the truth; there is not just a single answer that is right and a single answer that is wrong.

"Whether or not PBL can be used to teach empathy would be a good hypothesis to test," Dr Rasoal concluded. "We think that it has a positive impact on empathy but our research in this area is ongoing. Further investigations will help to test our theory."



I think Raspberry Pi is an excellent opportunity to get people back into 'real computing'. I teach mainly to 19+ does anyone have any experience teaching RPi to this range of learners?

Commented Paul on
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