Are Empathy and Intellect Incompatible?

April 4, 2017
Heidi Moawad, MD

Researchers used cross sectional data obtained from a scale of physician empathy and the results of objective structured clinical examination scores.

There is a long-held stereotype that people who are intellectually book smart are not particularly compassionate – and that caring and compassionate folks are not necessarily sharp in the intellectual sphere. Doctors are widely thought of as gifted individuals who possess the important combination of book smarts and a caring attitude. And studies show that, contrary to the widely-held belief that academically bright, high achievers are not kind or caring, there is an unexpected positive correlation between smarts and compassion. 

Scientific Evidence of a Link Between Academic Success and Empathy 

Researchers from Boston University School of Medicine used cross sectional data obtained from 590 medical students who were in four consecutive years of their medical school studies. Using the Jefferson (JSPE) scale of physician empathy and the results of objective structured clinical examination (OSCE) scores, researchers found a positive correlation between the students’ JSPE scores and their OSCE scores. This is an intriguing study that yields potentially useful information for physicians navigating careers for the long haul, particularly if these results are found to be reproducible. 

Why the Unexpected Link? 

Interestingly, the link shouldn't be so unexpected. While there are certainly sporadic stories of brilliant eccentrics who excel at academics but who cannot relate to ‘real’ people, we all know well balanced individuals who manage to do well at several aspects of life and work. The stereotype of the genius, absent-minded professor is entertaining, but not as prevalent in real world experience as the considerate, thoughtful, and careful physician. 

In fact, thinking through medical scenarios requires more than just a simple measured ability to select the correct answer. Academic achievement in medicine also requires a certain level of insight and appreciation for concepts such as patient pain, subtle discomfort, and patient non-compliance. Fully understanding textbook material – even intellectually – requires the ability to grasp these ‘soft’ issues. And while clinical documentation requirements are becoming more objective, doctors' innate clinical problem-solving thought processes encompass criteria that are still not well represented by simple documentation methods – and may never be well replicated by purely objective methods. 

Another reason that empathy and academic success are linked in medicine is that they both require clear thinking without excessive preoccupation of personal concerns – at least during the time of the exam or personal interaction. This ability to focus and to have self-control and self-discipline serves a physician when it comes to academic learning and when it comes to listening to others and caring about their concerns. 

Medical students and practicing physicians who are dealing with personal turmoil or distractions may lose some ability to concentrate on challenging academic material and may also be less able to pay attention to the needs of others.

Can You Increase Academic Abilities or Empathy?

Of course, not everyone is gifted at everything. Many are not naturally academically inclined or inherently strong when it comes to empathy. But people don't have to relegate themselves to accept their lowest level of innate ability. Most students have been able to build and improve academic abilities and empathy through practice and dedication to improvement. And that dedication and drive to getting better is at the core of any doctor’s success in any personal or professional competence.

According to experts, while empathy is a skill that many people are born with, improving empathy relies on a few skills that can be practiced.

References:

Casas RS, et al. Associations of medical student empathy with clinical competence. Patient Educ Couns. 2016 Nov 10.

Peña-Sarrionandia A, et al. Integrating emotion regulation and emotional intelligence traditions: a meta-analysis. Front Psychol. 2015 Feb 24.