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Empathy among students in engineering programmes (tandfonline.com)
79 points by oinkgrr on Jan 21, 2013 | hide | past | favorite | 71 comments

There is a key fault common to every 'scientific' study done in this area - and there is an immense number of these studies done every year.

The correct headline should be as follows: "Engineering students do not view themselves as caring as medical students do." Key point being that these are not studies done on 'action', but rather on 'cheap speech'. I can claim to be the most empathetic person alive, but will happily walk out the room and flip off a beggar asking for change while still believing I am empathetic as I may subconsciously not recognize the act.

This is a huge problem with these kind of studies, and imho, these studies are fairly worthless. If you want to test this kind of thing, pretend to be a beggar outside each faculty and see which students actually help the most rather than say they will help the most.

I'm intrigued by the credence given to studies based on self-reported emotional states.

For example, I've seen a ton of studies on happiness.. for example studies that report on the happiest countries. How do they control for cultural imperatives? I think we all know people who consider depression etc to be character flaws. I'd go as far as to say most people feel pressure to represent themselves as happy and content. Being honest about yourself is seriously difficult, even when you're the only one listening.

The headline was something like "Engineers have no empathy and are cold and dead inside" and linked to a sensational article on theregister. Now the title is more moderate and it links to the scientific paper instead. What happened?

This is the same paper that was linked in the article, so I think it's all good. Here is the link to The Register for curious (and lazy): http://www.theregister.co.uk/2013/01/21/engineers_cold_and_d...

And for those who appreciate tongue-in-cheek mockery.

Somewhere in the icy depths of the pit I have for a soul, a cruel and callous feeling of detached amusement was conjured forth by the not at all hyperbolic writing I just read. I enjoyed the image of the zombie hordes of engineers spreading our deathly chill over these lands.

Stop being creative! You'll give us all a bad name...

Eh, you're lucky to have a soul. All I've got is a clockwork kernel, and I have to share that with my 26 other personalities!

Breaking news: people in a job about caring for people, care more for people than people in a job not about caring for people. Film at 11.

A more interesting comparison if you're going to use medicine, IMO, is how it's the exact opposite for surgeons compared to doctors. If you believe The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success by Kevin Dutton (which is the basis of this HuffPo article):


It makes sense because doctors require a high level of empathy whereas surgeons need to be better under pressure, be able to hold longer focus, etc. which are qualities of psychopaths.

How much of that can we ascribe to turnover though?

Is it people who go into surgery care less? Or only people who care less can handle a career in surgery, where you typically have no bond to the patient, see many more people die (potentially due your own limitations or outright mistakes) and even when they live, you may see them for a follow-up exam or two, but not really ever again?

There seems to be huge down-sides for an empathic surgeon and very little emotional up-side.

Bang. This guy hit all the points I was going to make.

Also, surgeons need to be able to cut people open without freaking out, possibly even enjoying it.

From my experience, at least of the NHS, people in the job of caring for people don't care about people...

I've had considerably more experience than most people of the NHS over the past 6 years.

I've accompanied a patient to different GPs within a surgery, to at least ten different hospitals, both A&E units and wards. I've visited some mental health hospitals on top of that.

A couple of these were private. The rest were NHS. (One of the private MH hospitals was significantly abusive, probably illegal.)

I have seen some shocking patient care from all levels of staff; HCAs through nurses through FY1s, FY2s, registrars and consultants. The NHS complaints process is sub-optimal and doesn't appear to do much to actually prevent problems happening in future.

But I have also met many more staff who care deeply about their patients and who do their best within the constraints.

Please don't make the mistake of accusing most people in the NHS of doing a poor job of caring when that's just not true.

Were any of these London hospitals?


Chelsea & Westminster A&E and their burns unit.

Hillingdon (an orthopedic ward; and an ITU) (before they rebuilt it)

*UCH critical care unit.


I've only ever had positive experiences with the NHS so far.

They've saved both my life in an emergency and my father's life too.

You win some and you lose some. It's nice to hear of a good story, but it's not the norm by far.

I'm story you had a bad experience but it is the normal for people to have a good experience with the NHS. Patient surveys rate it very highly.

It's not quite how it works.

In fact, I've seen it with my own eyes. The patient surveys are issued by the hospitals. I've actually seen nurses deciding not to issue survey forms to patients that they have pissed off or treated badly.

Not only that, my immediate family have been to hospitals (3 different trusts, 5 hospitals) 121 times (we have some persistent complicated medical problems) and not one visit has been consistent, on time, complete and they have put us at extreme risk on 18 separate occasions. We've had medical record mix ups, wrong procedures booked and even on one surgical appointment, they got my blood type completely wrong to the point if they'd had to transfuse, I wouldn't be here to whinge about it now.

I have received 5 separate apology letters from the director of medicine in one London hospital due to fuck ups.

It barely works.

As a side point, I've worked for the NHS on contract a couple of times and it's an utter mess from a management perspective as well. Money spills out of holes like water and little is delivered.

If it's not the norm by far, can you back up your claim with some evidence?

Start here:


Then read here, the comments:


Then ask people around you.

Start here

That's a link to a pdf document. Can you quote the part you are referring to? I can see “Safe, high quality, coordinated care” at 74.5% and “Building closer relationships” at 80.8%

All the rest is confirmation bias and unrepresentative. People like to moan. 10/1 ratio and all that.

Read the methodology and the sample sizes versus the total sample arena.

They only give the surveys to people they don't piss off. That has been observed by myself on numerous occasions.

This is untrue.

Surveys are sent by an organisation that is independent of the trusts. Patients are chosen at random.

I don't know what you saw, but it was not the patient experience survey that you linked to.

My dad went to a NHS hospital with chest pains, was misdiagnosed, and died in the "recovery room" of a heart attack.

Afterwards, he didn't fill out a patient survey.

I'm sorry to hear about your father.

The patient experience survey[1] is not for serious events like your father's.

There are other methods used to capture that kind of information. The Hospital Event Statistics[2] database is one method.

I fully accept (I've already said in this thread) that the NHS complaints procedure is sub-optimal. Often people say that complaining is as traumatic as the event. People seem to understand that mistakes happen, but when clinicians appear to lie about those events most people are (rightly) hurt and outraged. I've seen a lot of improvement in the complaints handling of one trust in one county; I have no knowledge about other complaints departments. (But I suspect they're pretty bad.)

There are organisations like PALS which should be feeding information back to the trust, even if you're not making a complaint. They should also be helping you with the procedure of making a complaint if that's what you want to do.

LINks don't talk about individual events, but should listen to people talking about general experiences.

I'm not sure what can be done about the process of recording patient and relative experience after serious awful events. I welcome any suggestions.

[1] (http://www.dh.gov.uk/prod_consum_dh/groups/dh_digitalassets/...)

[2] (http://www.hesonline.nhs.uk/Ease/servlet/ContentServer?siteI...)

Sorry I should be more clear. Most PCTs issue consent forms to patients when leaving to allow the third party to perform the survey I.e. Collect then details from the PCT. On several occasions, I've seen them withhold these from the patients intentionally and have had to ask for the forms.

The patient experience survey does not require patients to give permission for a third party to perform the survey.


> I've seen them withhold these from the patients intentionally and have had to ask for the forms

That would be illegal if it was happening wrt the patient experience survey.

The link that you provided tells us so.

> Once statistics have been designated as National Statistics it is a statutory requirement that the Code of Practice shall continue to be observed.

Luckily, staff on hospital wards have nothing to do with collecting anything connected to the patient experience survey. Again, what you saw was not part of the patient experience survey.

Or perhaps they just fake it better.

"The computing students, once gender effects had been eliminated, actually came out basically the same as medical and caring types: they had turned out to be normal, warm, caring human beings. It was in fact the physics-based classical engineers who were dead inside."

They also missed a key tidbit from the original news release. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/01/130117084854.ht...

The computing students (who were found to be as empathetic as others once controlling for gender) were taught using problem-based learning techniques - i.e., working in teams on real-world problems and projects. The other group was taught using traditional methods (lecture, rote memorization).

"For computer engineering students, the differences were largely eliminated. The researchers have a theory about why: the computer engineering students are taught with PBL, problem-based learning, which is not the case for the applied physics students. Chato Rasoal believes this can influence the degree of empathy."

Engineering (and math and science) professors need to improve how they teach. Here are 3 simple, research-backed tips for doing so: 1) incorporate everyday examples in your teaching, 2) use tools and techniques to improve student spatial visualizations skills, and 3) talk with and interact with your students (out of class and online): http://www.engageengineering.org/

For any other Americans who were wondering what bicycle stunts might have to do with this research:

> Noun. trick cyclist (plural trick cyclists) 1. (UK, slang) A psychiatrist

My ability to detect British humor through text must be pretty poor, because it took several re-reads and a Googling of "trick cyclist" to finally notice the sarcasm/satire.

"ability to detect British humor"

That would make an excellent browser plugin.

Most likely it would route all process requests through a single queue.

Some people burn on the outside just enough to keep those around them warm. Some burn deep on the inside to heat the boilers that turn the turbines in their minds that move the world.

The two aren't mutually exclusive.

Those are the ones we call "genius" in the classical definition of the term (as opposed to raw intellectual power). So, yes some people have both (or develop) the inner fire and the outer charisma to match.

Wait everyone isn't cold and dead inside ? I thought I was just normal.

It's perfectly normal. As is an insatiable hunger for brains.

I'm pretty sure I'm 36.6 C and very much alive, thank you very much.

I don't appreciate the "Engineers are ice cold" rhetoric. I can't tell if its satirizing the research or if they are just link baiting but this article seems to portray all engineers as terrible people.

> or if they are just link baiting

The register is pretty awful rag and full of stupid annoying link-baity trash.

This is plain wrong. I am sure that in my friends' minds I am a caring and compassionate person. In return I try to do my best preserving them in my basement.

Does the register think it's the onion??

Eh, once in a while it's nice to see them raise their quality of reporting.

It's not much of a baseline to rise up from though...

Baby steps.

As far as I know, it's much more like a tabloid than satire (I'm not British though).

As a rule the register's articles/reporting are based in/on factual events, but often take an incredulous or satirical tone.

This is normally confined to the headline or the summary line, but sometimes applies to longer pieces.

"The results were clear-cut, apparently: engineering students cared nothing for other human beings' feelings and had few of their own. They were cold-hearted and uncaring, remorseless human machines. By contrast the medical students were warm and bursting with empathy and love."

This is the exact thing I was thinking "Is this some kind of joke? like an Onion article?". Well, as H G Keyserling once said: "Generalizing is always wrong".

Same old story: judging people by stereotypes isn’t such a great idea but remains tempting due to potential savings in cycles.

It'd be interesting to study left-wing vs right-wing politicians. Are they all cold/calculating or warm/gooey inside? And how about tribalism? Do people (especially little kids) feel more empathy for people who look the same as they do?

I'd be interested in such serious research too, but so far everything I've ever seen on the topic has pretty clearly been "research", emphasized scare quotes, with predetermined results that just happen to precisely flatter the preconceived notions of the researchers, and I don't trust the results.

I'm not sure about how warm and gooey left-wing and right-wing people are, but there has been research in the roots of our respective morality systems: http://www.ted.com/talks/jonathan_haidt_on_the_moral_mind.ht...

This explains /everrrything/ about hardware engineers :-)

It would have been more interesting if it was something like this: "A study carried out by psychology researchers find that Engineers were sent by the machines from the future to build robots and make entire human race their slaves"

I'd be curious to see these questions. Somehow I suspect the engineers chose options that were 'coldly calculating' and lead to better end results - frankly, I'd prefer that in more doctors.

I'm a computer engineer and I'm as cold as the hardware I support.

I'm a mechanical-electrical-software engineer. I can practically feel the two forces at war inside of me. I also studied optics, I wonder if that gives me some special insight?

Mechatronic? Or do you have three degrees?

No, just an ME degree from Stuttgart but I focussed on controls and optics. I worked in machine vision for years and gradually drifted into software and firmware engineering with a lot of EE mixed in. I'm at HP now and they don't car what your degree is in.

Sounds like an interesting career! I'm working as a software engineer on a rail automation project at the moment, finishing my BEng in Mechatronics in mid 2013. May I ask what you work on at HP?

Here's the original scientific paper:



Bullshit, if anything it should be the opposite, a surgeon that tends to get too emmotionally attached to their patients won't last long.

Plus surgeons deal with death on a more frequent basis than almost anyone else, if anything they're more likely to become numb to this, therefore becoming less emotional. Maybe this article is referring people who are still studying/in medical school whose goal it is to one day help people.

Who cares what they think? Their importance, and the importance of most people, is an insignificant factor in the equation of life.

"Social Science" at its best. Too cold ?

> using a "well-established questionnaire"

Self-reported "data" is useless.

I hit a paywall asking me 33 €.

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