Monday, August 30, 2010

Personality: Scientists and Engineers

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Back in March, this blog spent several posts looking at the opinions of Henry Petroski, the Duke University professor who has argued that the United States undervalues engineering relative to science. One of the side points that Petroski made was that scientists have larger egos than engineers. I mentioned that there might be a personality-based explanation for Petroski's observation, and it's time to provide it.

I want to repeat my disclaimer from the previous post: While Petroski may have a point on average, this observation is completely useless in generic interactions with scientists and engineers. In my lifetime, I have encountered a number of engineers with significant egos and plenty of scientists with much smaller egos than accomplishments. The variation in each pool is too large to make any assumptions about any individual scientist or engineer. I daresay that the distinction is basically a useless stereotype.

Yet, Petroski's observation may have its origins in the kinds of personalities that are most drawn to each discipline. Scientists are basically concerned with explaining the world around them and testing hypotheses about those observations. Of the four personality worlds identified by meridian theory, it is the "thinking" world that lines up most closely with that mind-set. The thinking world fundamentally deals with ideas, and it is novel ideas that usually are required to explain previously-unexplained phenomena. The analytical nature of the thinking world, jumping from one idea to another without concern for the details of the jump, serves them well in science. The "stomach" type within the "thinking" world is best-known for interdisciplinary thinking, bringing in ideas from outside disciplines to explain something perplexing in a defined field. The "brain" and "kidney" types in the "thinking" world are best-known for becoming extreme, deep experts in a field.

However, it is the "brain" type that also is well-known for arrogance, or at least appearing to be arrogant. The "brain" individual tends to exude an image of royalty, that their ideas are somehow to be deferred to, and others are less important. They don't tend to pay a lot of attention to the feelings of others, which are often imperceptible to them. It is likely the prevalence of "brain" types in science, or at least people in the "thinking" world with some "brain" traits, that lead to the observation that scientists have large egos.

Engineering primarily involves using scientific knowledge to make new things. This tends to attract people of action, which is to say the "physical" world. They tend to be good at putting things together, and then improvising to make them work. While not afraid of first principles, they will readily focus on what actually does the job in the real world, not in a book, if there is any conflict between the two. While the physical world can tend to be "macho" (both men and women), that doesn't come across as "ego" quite as strongly as the arrogance of the "brain" type.

Petroski's observation likely comes down to that--the "thinking" world (especially "brain") types in science come across as having bigger egos than the "physical" types in engineering. For those of us in the "spiritual" or "emotional" worlds that work as scientists or engineers, we just shake our heads at the stereotypes.

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