Monday, December 12, 2011

Scientists, artists, and empathy

In The Science of Evil, Simon Baron-Cohen reports research that found that artists are more empathetic than scientists and engineers. I replicated this with GSS data. Respondents were asked how well does the following statement describe them: "Sometimes I don't feel very sorry for other people when they are having problems." Answers ranged from "does not describe very well" (1) to "describes very well" (5). I reverse-scored the answers so that high numbers reflect high empathy. Here are the means (sample size = 124):


Mean empathy score

Scientists/Engineers 3.34
Writers/Actors/Painters/Dancers/Musicians  3.77

This is four-tenths of a standard deviation difference--a medium-size gap--but it is not statistically significant.

11 comments:

IHTG said...

Have you done IQ and empathy yet?

Ron Guhname said...

I tried, but they didn't ask the questions in the same year.

Tom Bridgeland said...

If 4/10ths of a standard deviation is a medium-sized difference, but is still not significant, then there isn't anything worth seeing here, or in any other 'medium-sized difference'. There is essentially no difference.

Tom Bridgeland said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jim Bowery said...

If empathy and problem solving skills are polar opposites, then empathy is a curse.

SFG said...

Look at businessmen and social workers or preschool teachers--the low-openness end of the curve with low and high agreeableness, respectively.

"If empathy and problem solving skills are polar opposites, then empathy is a curse."

Society doesn't only need engineers. Granted we could use a few more right now, but this is an example of a balanced polymorphism, or, as they used to say, when it comes to personality, "It takes all kinds." This is one of the few forms of diversity that actually is useful.

Anonymous said...

Society doesn't only need engineers.

You didn't really understand the comment.

The point is that if empathy and problem solving skills are truly polar opposites, then empathy is a curse because the more you have of it, the less you can actually do about it.

SFG said...

"The point is that if empathy and problem solving skills are truly polar opposites, then empathy is a curse because the more you have of it, the less you can actually do about it."

Ah. OK.

Of course, I suspect people-people probably just know someone who actually does have problem-solving skills and ask them. ;)

Hail said...

The problem of the technically-oriented lacking empathy was a strong theme in Vonnegut's novel Cat's Cradle.

The main character had no significant human relationships, as I recall, and it seemed impossible for him to relate to others. He was brilliant, and single-handedly developed new terror-weapons for Uncle Sam. He worked for the atomic weapons research program.

Jim Bowery said...

SFG writes: "Of course, I suspect people-people probably just know someone who actually does have problem-solving skills and ask them. ;)"

So "people people" who end up in power through are good at knowing who to ask about solving problems?

It seems to me that they'd build up heirarchies of "technologists" who are, themselves, on the "people people" side of the "polymorphism" spectrum and be incapable of detecting that they really can't solve the problems -- particularly the really big big problems. Of course, who cares about big big problems? Everyone knows changing the world starts in the heart of the each individual, collectively or something like that...

SFG said...

"The main character had no significant human relationships, as I recall, and it seemed impossible for him to relate to others. He was brilliant, and single-handedly developed new terror-weapons for Uncle Sam. He worked for the atomic weapons research program."

See, in real life, you need people like that around, and you want them on your side, so the other side doesn't build a bigger bomb.

"It seems to me that they'd build up heirarchies of "technologists" who are, themselves, on the "people people" side of the "polymorphism" spectrum and be incapable of detecting that they really can't solve the problems -- particularly the really big big problems. Of course, who cares about big big problems? Everyone knows changing the world starts in the heart of the each individual, collectively or something like that..."

You aptly describe what happens to large companies in technical fields, from the way I hear my software-engineer friends tell it. I suspect the best combination for powerlust is being a people-person with mild sociopathy.

I was saying it's better to *be* a people-person, not to be ruled by one. I don't much care for Ayn Rand (except for impressing the odd libertarian girl), but her dichotomy of creators and second-handers has some truth here.