Emotional competence in science

By Joern Fischer

In a recent discussion, I had a minor epiphany that I’d like to share, regarding the balance of rational thought and emotion in the day-to-day operation of science. It struck me that naturally emotionally attuned individuals who want to survive in science, have to work hard to train their capacity for rational thought and analysis. But the reverse is not true: individuals with a natural tendency for rational thinking are not required, and only rarely encouraged, to develop their emotional competencies. My argument here is that science, on a daily basis, suffers from this imbalance between the rational and emotional.

First things first: science is about rational arguments to understand the world. The use of logic is extremely valuable because it can be scrutinized, and fact and opinion can be carefully divided. This is extremely valuable, and to me, the key strength of science. (I use “science” in a general sense here, not only for the natural sciences, but also for the social sciences and other academic disciplines founded on logical reasoning.)

But science on a day-to-day basis, is a social process. There are supervisor-student relationships, junior and senior researcher relationships, lots of peer relationships, administrative relationships, communication tasks among all of these plus with the general public and potential readers of one’s work. Science is full of this stuff. In the context of running complex field projects, I have said they before that it’s 90% about people and 10% about science. This is perhaps an over-statement (… though I don’t think so …), but the general notion that there are lots of social processes, I think, cannot be denied.

I argue that a lot of improvements would be possible if scientists spent at least equal amounts of energy on developing their emotional competencies as on refining their analytical skills. The reason why I say “at least” equal amounts of energy is that I think science, on average, is dominated by “thinkers” with relatively little natural knack for the emotional realm. Most scientists are naturally talented at rational thought (that’s why they got into science), but fewer it seems to me are naturally talented at dealing with people.

Let us think of common problems that make for unproductive and unhappy situations: students feeling lost, insecurity regarding one’s achievements, uncertainty about future employment, power games, misunderstandings between administrative and academic staff, or poor recognition of the individual needs and strengths of different kinds of people. These situations stem from poor emotional competence – but they have ramifications for achievements in science, that is, in the purely rational realm.

My hypothesis is that the most productive science can be produced where people routinely pay attention to both the emotional and rational realm. All of us can develop skills in both areas – but traditionally, the importance of emotional skills has not been recognized sufficiently in science.

(Final point: Yes, this is related to the idea of emotional intelligence, as communicated by Daniel Goleman and increasingly recognized as important in various leadership contexts. I’m not using the term in the above because I’m not well read in this area, and so I’m not sure if what I mean maps precisely onto the idea of emotional intelligence or not. Either way: I think academic environments are not doing a good job of recognizing this “thing” that I argue is missing.)


6 thoughts on “Emotional competence in science

  1. Thanks for this post. I think it resonates well with my experiences as a graduate student. I want to reply to your hypothesis that “the most productive science can be produced where people routinely pay attention to both the emotional and rational realm.”

    I recently read Smarter, Faster, Better by Charles Duhigg, where he explores the concept of productivity in both individuals and team settings. There are a lot of interesting take aways about what makes a productive team in a variety of settings, which I think could be translated to academic research. Some of them are indeed about fostering rational thinking (mental models or Bayesian thinking), but many are about fostering and working on the emotional and relational aspects within a work environment. In short, I think your hypothesis is well supported. Relating to what you write about, Duhigg brings in the concept of ‘psychological safety’ from organizational theory research led by Amy Edmondson. Put simply, team psychological safety is a state where individuals in a group feel safe to express ideas and take personal risks (1). Psychological safety has also been incorporated into Google teams as it’s ‘most important’ feature of successful teams (2). They also have a tool to help people think about fostering psychological safety (3) in teams. I’m not saying academic research has the same ends as teams in Google, but these results also had weight for manufacturing teams (1) and another example in the book, healthcare clinics (4). Perhaps academia can learn from these experiences.

    What does psychological safety have to do with being more emotion-oriented in science work? One of Edmondson’s recommendations for leaders to act in a way that fosters team psychological safety is ‘Acknowledging your own fallibility.’ In other words, showing and sharing vulnerability with a team (as a leader) or as a team member is critical. Isn’t demonstrating or reaching out through vulnerability one of the first things we do when we try to empathize with others? It would seem that the tools it takes to achieve these group dynamics are pretty fundamental emotional tools of relating to people. Leaders and teams who actively empathize with one another to fostering psychological safety are actually creating social norms. This is exciting, because if the same dynamics applying to teams of nurses or google engineers applies to scientists, than scientific teams can work toward institutionalizing the conditions for more productive and *inclusive* environments by focusing, as you say, as much on the emotional as the rational.

    (1) paper exploring psychological safety & learning dynamics in teams: http://web.mit.edu/curhan/www/docs/Articles/15341_Readings/Group_Performance/Edmondson%20Psychological%20safety.pdf

    (2) https://rework.withgoogle.com/blog/five-keys-to-a-successful-google-team/

    (3) https://rework.withgoogle.com/guides/understanding-team-effectiveness/steps/foster-psychological-safety/


    • Thanks Jess — I think you have made one of the most useful comments on this blog for some time here!! Much appreciated and very interesting from my perspective! — Joern

  2. Wow! Excellent comment indeed Jess. This is *exactly* what I’ve been trying to advocate for for some time. Arguably, the rationalistic impulses of many academics have led to collectively irrational behaviors. That is, there are numerous peer-reviewed studies on the importance of taking holidays and sick days, on the importance of emotional intelligence and fostering functional office social dynamics, and more. Yet I have yet to see academics pay heed to any of this, either by reading this work and explicitly bringing it up to be used/learned about, or by using insights from the literature explicitly to influence how they approach the social elements of work.

    In short, rational examination should lead one to emphasize the importance of emotional intelligence, through the evidence alone. But because (in my opinion) many who lack a natural knack or inclination for emotional intelligence don’t like the implications of this work or line of argumentation, I find they often diminish or seemingly-inadvertently-but-very-consistently ignore those who point out kind of work you point to, Jess.

    Rational examination of human behavior and scientific literature should bring one to the conclusion that developing one’s emotional “chops” are vitally important to conducting scientific (and almost any other) endeavor.

  3. I’m not a scientist, so I feel a bit silly leaving a comment. But I’ve been following this blog for a while – since I learned about the ancient wood-pastures and featured Tibor’s film on my blog. I love your message and your voice. I feel that the separation between the rational and the emotional, and even the intuitive, is why there’s such a split between scientists and culture. I’m thinking about GMOs. People have an intuitive sense about an issue. But they don’t know the science well enough to defend their emotional or intuitive response. Because companies bring drugs and chemicals to market so quickly – without asking enough questions or allowing enough time for testing, the public has grown to distrust what is sometimes good science. Intuitive and emotionally adept people will use bad science to try to explain what is intuition. This blog is the only place I see these kinds of discussions. If more scientists were skilled in these other qualities, I feel the public would have more trust in them.

    • Dear Laura — your comment is most welcome, whether you’re a scientist or not! Thank you for the encouraging feedback. I think there is a lot of space for improvement in this realm, and I think many younger scientists are very receptive to using all of their human capacities, not only rational thought; and I think this is particularly relevant in the context of real-world problems such as sustainability. To me, there’s hope that a next generation of scientists will be more rounded than what our education systems have produced and rewarded in the past. Best wishes — Joern

  4. Dear Joern
    I find a lot in common across this blog and the one on managing time and expectations. I am not very young, but in the field of academia, I would certainly be considered a young scientist 🙂 and I find that when the emotional and the rational are out of sync, whether in our minds, our daily lives, or the institutional cultures that “breed” us, meeting the demands of our professional careers becomes that much more difficult.

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