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Does empathy beget creativity? Investigating the role of trait empathy on idea generation and selection

M. Alzayed, S. Miller, and C. McComb
2020, Design Computing and Cognition '20

The ability to understand the needs and circumstances of others, also known as empathy, has been found to help engineering designers develop a deeper understanding of the design problems they solve. While prior work has examined the utility of empathic design experiences on driving creative concept generation, little is known about the role of a designer’s empathic tendencies in driving creative idea generation and selection in an engineering design project. Without this knowledge, we cannot be sure if, when or how empathy influences the design process. Thus, the main goal of this paper was to identify the role of trait empathy in creative concept generation and selection in an engineering design student project. In order to achieve this, a study was conducted with 103 first-year engineering students during three design stages of an 8-week design project (problem formulation, concept generation, and concept selection). The results from this research highlighted that empathic concern tendencies predicted the generation of more ideas. In addition, perspective-taking and fantasy tendencies negatively predicted the generation of more ideas. During concept selection, personal distress predicted participants’ propensity for the selection of useful ideas while empathic concern negatively predicted the selection of useful ideas. These results present some of the first evidence on the relationship between trait empathy and creativity in the concept generation and selection stages of the design process in engineering design education.