Nerds, Empathy and Social Conscience

(Last updated on: August 26, 2017)

nerds cliparteles 200pxScience Fact:  Nerds have graduated in recent times from being a reviled social group to an exclusive club.  Nerds are certainly not “hot” (except perhaps for BBT’s Sheldon), but their role in creating iPhone apps and their earning potential have enhanced their social cachet.

Nerds are by definition socially impaired and inwardly-directed.  Thus you might not expect nerds and their “cousins” – scientists and engineers – to care much about public welfare and global issues.  And it’s true that many technical folks are more interested in technical problems (which often have a solution) than social issues (which more frequently have no satisfactory solution).

However, which came first?  Do people who are already socially disengaged choose to study science and engineering?  Or does the technical educational curriculum turn otherwise socially normal people into nerds?  It’s surprisingly difficult to find research studies in this area on the Web.

Although causality is still unproven, a recent study by Sociology Prof. Erin Cech of Rice University provides important evidence.  It suggests that studying engineering may push students to become more distant from social issues.  Prof. Cech followed 300 engineering students at a variety of institutions, none of them her own university: an elite private school; a large public university; an all-engineering college; and an all-women liberal arts college.  Every spring through their schooling, plus once again eighteen months afterwards, she surveyed the students to determine how much importance they placed on ethical responsibility, social consequences of technology, how people use machines and social consciousness.

Considering the variety of institutions surveyed, the results were remarkably similar.  With each passing year, students were more cynical and more disengaged from social issues.  As a result, graduates were more apathetic and less concerned for the welfare of others when they graduated than they were when they entered college.  Basically, they lacked “empathy.”  Cech posits that this consistent trend likely arises from the way courses are taught: getting the “right answer” is paramount, and the consequences for people’s lives are either treated as of no importance, or relegated to the sidelines.

Science Speculation:  Ironically, if disengagement is “taught” by our leading university engineering programs, they are doing a poor job of preparing their graduates.  Why?  Because in the real world human-friendly design is not only important for commercial success, but may also protect companies from product liability lawsuits.

When resources are present but not being utilized, many people would call that a “vacant niche” begging to be filled by some organism.  There’s a demand for people-optimized design and environmentally sensitive engineering.  And indeed someone has stepped forward to fill that need: the profession known as Engineering Psychology.  Engineering Psychology is closely related to ergonomics and human factors and is presently a booming postgraduate field.

Despite the “engineering” modifier, most Engineering Psychology programs such as that at Georgia Tech are firmly housed in the Psychology department.  I was only able to find one program, the one at Tufts University, where Engineering Psychology is an interdisciplinary cooperative program involving both Engineering Design and Psychology.

Does the heavy psychology emphasis make sense?  I would say yes, provided that practitioners also have a good foundation in engineering.  Psychology programs provide strong preparation in statistics and experimental design, essential tools for any researcher who needs to extract reliable results when working with highly variable human beings.

Perhaps the wandering-away from social issues by engineers in part arises from the fragmentation of science and technology today.  If nerd engineers have abandoned social concerns to concentrate on math and analysis, psychologists have stepped forward to fill the gap with people-oriented thinking and human-centered designs.

Can math-heavy nerds also be environmentally sensitive citizens?  Or does today’s narrow technical curriculum automatically wall them off from social awareness?

Drawing Credit: cliparteles, on

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