Autistic Thinking: Needles and Haystacks

“I now laugh when I realise how much money the federal government and leading industries spend on training critical employees how to ‘think autistically’, even if they don’t realise that is what they are doing.”

   John Marble, a White House appointee under President Obama

In other entries on this site I’ve looked at how people on the autistic spectrum navigate decision-making and choice. What we see is that autists are better able to avoid the cognitive behaviours which can lead us to make less than optimal decisions and to think irrationally. Further, autists tend to be less influenced by their emotions. In other words, better at keeping our heads, but also better at keeping those heads cool, calm and collected. Which makes us more consistently logical, or to be more exact, less illogical. The autism advantage.

There are some great examples of how these capabilities play out in the film “The Big Short”, based on Michael Lewis’s book of the same name. The film explores some of the true stories around the financial crash of 2008, where one of the main characters is real-life hedge fund manager Dr. Michael Burry, who is autistic (Asperger’s Syndrome). He seems to have been the first to see the crash coming and invested accordingly, making huge profits for himself and his investors. This was at a time when many people, from Lehman Brothers down, were going to the wall. He kept his head while all around were losing theirs.

One scene that’s revealing centres on a phone conversation between Burry and one of his main investors, Lawrence Fields. We see Burry cooly announcing that he’s just invested a massive 1.3 billion dollars of other people’s money in, as Fields describes it, “something that’s never happened before”. In contrast to Fields, who’s understandably in a cold sweat, Burry is emotionally calm:

Lawrence Fields: “There was an underlying understanding that you wouldn’t act like a goddamn crazy man!”

Michael Burry: “This isn’t crazy. It’s all very logical.”

Lawrence Fields: “So now we pay out premiums on these swaps until the mortgages fail? In other words we lose millions until something that’s never happened before happens?”

Michael Burry: “That’s correct.”

Fields’ comment re “something that’s never happened before” is an example of Normalcy Bias, the tendency to think that because something hasn’t happened up until now, it won't or can't happen in the future. But for someone who’s autistic, “it’s never happened before” or “it’s always been like this” carry little or no weight. They just don’t provide a rational enough answer to the one-word question “why?” or its companion, the two-word question “why not?”. For someone on the spectrum, information needs to be weighed objectively on its merits and only on its merits. “it’s never happened before” is no logical guarantee that “it won’t happen in the future”. No-one had highjacked commercial aircraft and flown them into skyscrapers before 9/11. But then they did. When Michael Burry was initially looking into the possibility of these mortgage bonds failing, “it’s never happened before” wasn’t a consideration because it’s irrelevant.

Fields is also acting under the influence of the Bandwagon Effect, and is simply echoing the thoughts of the market that house prices only ever increase. Once again, for ever-rational Burry, group behaviours like this just don’t have much impact on him, an autistic capability I explore further in the Group Biases entry.

There’s a scene earlier in the film that illustrates this perfectly: Burry has gone to New York to take out the swaps, which are basically bets that the mortgage bonds will fail. He’s at a meeting with leading Goldman Sachs’ bankers discussing an investment of 100 million dollars:

Banker: "These bonds only fail if millions of Americans don’t pay their mortgages. That’s never happened in history. If you’ll excuse me Dr. Burry, it seems like a foolish investment."

Michael Burry: “Based on the prevailing sentiment of the market, the big banks and popular culture, yes, it’s a foolish investment. But everyone’s wrong."

A statement like that could be the result of ignorance, arrogance or both: or it could be the result of autistic cool-headedness and rationality, of not being influenced by the Bandwagon Effect and “the market, the big banks and popular culture”. Which pretty much covers everyone. At times, the autist ploughs a lonely furrow. Seeing what others don’t comes at a price.

What Michael Burry is doing here is what all autists tend to do when making decisions: reduce or eliminate irrelevant data that comes from social behaviours, cognitive fallacies and even your own emotions. This data is often nothing more than noise, and misleading noise at that. We encounter it when our framing of a problem stops us looking at alternative solutions, or when we compromise the problem-solving process by having preconceived ideas of a result, or when we let past experiences influence how we approach present ones, even when they’re independent. And that’s before we even start to consider the impact of group biases and social pressure, much less our feelings. In most cases, none of these are essential to finding an optimal solution, but all of them have the potential to introduce a fog of irrelevant information that can obscure the outcome.

Being able to think rationally and logically - and then remaining rational and logical - helps eliminate these factors. With less information to work through, the decision then becomes easier and the outcome clearer, as there’s simply less to worry about. If, as Neil Postman said, information is the new garbage, then there’s not as much garbage to sift through. As someone who’s on the spectrum, I can’t count the number of times I’ve found myself saying or thinking “but it’s obvious”. Well yes, it is obvious - but only if you remove everything that’s making it not obvious.

In an interview on MBUR, Michael Lewis commented about Michael Burry and Asperger’s Syndrome:

“ … it's not an accident that these people are the ones who saw what the system failed to see and was blind to. They had qualities in them that enabled them to see. And in his case, it was a total resistance to the propaganda coming out of Wall Street coupled with an insistence on seeing what the numbers were.”

In reality, people on the spectrum are not seeing anything differently to what everyone else sees. Autists are not better at looking per se. But what they are better at is removing the obstacles that obstruct the view. The “unique insights” or “creative solutions” that are often cited in regards to autistic employees are often not much more than being able to see what’s staring us in the face, of being able to “cut through the crap” (excuse the French). When solutions are hard to find, it can often be because we’re misled by “this is how we did it last time”, or “we always do it like this”, or “everyone feels that this is the best approach”. None of which cut any ice for an autist and none of which will necessarily help find a solution.

A Vancouver-based consultancy, Focus Professional Services, speak of their autistic consultants as having “unique ways of filtering information”. This goes to the heart of the autistic advantage: being able to eliminate unnecessary and confusing data by rejecting information noise. 

If you’re searching for a needle in a haystack, the first thing you want to do is reduce the size of the haystack. And autists are very good at removing hay.

Copyright © Peter Crosbie 2016. All Rights Reserved.


President Trump, There is no Autism Epidemic 

(NOS Mag)

Focus Professional Services: What is autism?

On The Money: How 'The Big Short' And Its Jerk Heroes Explain Finance

WBUR, 2011.

For more on Michael Burry, there’s an excerpt from Michael Lewis’s book in Vanity Fair:

“Michael Burry always saw the world differently—due, he believed, to the childhood loss of one eye. So when the 32-year-old investor spotted the huge bubble in the subprime-mortgage bond market, in 2004, then created a way to bet against it, he wasn’t surprised that no one understood what he was doing. In an excerpt from his new book, The Big Short, the author charts Burry’s oddball manoeuvres, his almost comical dealings with Goldman Sachs and other banks as the market collapsed, and the true reason for his visionary obsession.”

Betting on the Blind Side

Vanity Fair, 2010.