Learning engineering can make you forget how to be nice, says a study

Searching for empathy in all the wrong places.
Searching for empathy in all the wrong places.
Image: AP Photo/Nati Harnik
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In addition to learning how to craft new technologies, undergraduate engineers are learning to not care as much about their fellow human beings, suggests a new study from a sociologist with a degree in engineering.

Erin Cech surveyed 300 students as they entered undergraduate engineering programs at four universities in the northeastern US, and again 18 months after graduation. The questions dealt with their professional and ethical responsibilities, the importance of understanding the consequences of their work, the importance of understanding how people use machines, and their degree of social consciousness. “All four of these measures declined significantly from the time they entered school as freshman to the time they left college,” Cech says via email. The “understanding the consequences of technology” and “understanding how people use machines” measures were the two that dropped the most, she adds.

Cech attributes this change in attitudes to the nature of engineering studies. ”Issues that are nontechnical in nature are often perceived as irrelevant to the problem-solving process,” she wrote in a prepared statement. “There seems to be very little time or space in engineering curricula for nontechnical conversations about how particular designs may reproduce inequality – for example, debating whether to make a computer faster, more technologically savvy and expensive versus making it less sophisticated and more accessible for customers.”

There is, though, one big caveat to this study: Cech did not survey a control group of undergraduates in other subjects. So while her results are intriguing, it’s not clear whether engineers in particular come out of their studies with a dulled sense of social responsibility, or it’s just something that happens to all graduates when they start having to fend for themselves in a harshly competitive economy.