Trade secrets from the autistic mind: How autistic people think, and what we can learn from them.
An autistic person goes in for a job interview:
Interviewer: What’s your greatest weakness?
Autist: My honesty
Interviewer: I don’t see how honesty can be a weakness.
Autist: I don’t care what you think.
Cognitive fallacies and biases are subconscious tricks that our brains play on us, the cognitive equivalents of optical illusions. While the majority of these affect how we behave as individuals, some of them also have an impact when we’re in groups and social situations.
Group fallacies include: groupthink (the tendency for the group to suppress dissenting views) group shift (the tendency for individuals in a group to take more extreme positions than they would alone), and in-group and out-group biases (“us and them” behaviours). Not to mention various follow-the-leader biases such as the bandwagon effect. As in the case of heuristics and the individual, these group biases can be useful and certainly were in our evolutionary past. But equally, they can lead to irrational behaviour and poor choice, sometimes with catastrophic consequences. The collapse of Swissair is often cited as an example of groupthink, and these negative group behaviours have had an impact on everything from failed mountain-climbing expeditions to top-of-the table football teams losing to bottom-of-the-league minnows.
Elsewhere here I’ve looked at how people on the autistic spectrum deal with individual biases,. We’ve see that in general, they’re less susceptible and more consistently rational. But how do autists get on when it comes to decision-making and choice when part of a group? Are they still the Jedi Masters of rationality?
There are two main characteristics I’d like to look at. The first is absence of reputation maintenance, the second is weak central coherence. If you’re unfamiliar with those terms, fear not, all will become clear (he says hopefully).
The job interview described above is a perfect illustration of the first of these, absence of reputation maintenance. It means not caring, or caring less, what others think of you, of not being all that concerned about your status and reputation. A handful of studies have looked at how this works for autistic people.
In one study (Chevallier et al., 2012), groups of autistic and non-autistic children were shown drawings and asked to rate them (bad, good, very good etc.). After doing so, the researcher conducting the experiment announced that in fact she had done them, they were her own drawings. She then asked the children if they wanted to change their opinions. The non-autistic children increased their ratings (e.g., from “good” to “very good”), as they were less inclined to be critical, more inclined to engage in a form of flattery. On the other hand, the autistic kids didn’t:
Before moving on, one comment I’d make here is that this ability to ignore what other people think of you is often interpreted only in the negative sense, i.e., that autists tend to ignore insults, put-downs, patronising remarks etc. That’s true of course. But absence of reputation management goes two ways, and with autists, if insults are water off a duck’s back, so are compliments and praise: flattery will get you nowhere. Autists are just as wary of “that looks like a good solution” as they are of “that’ll never work”.
Another study on insensitivity to social motivation in autism (Izuma et al, 2011) used a charitable donation scenario to examine how autistic and non-autistic adults reacted to the presence or absence of an observer. The result was that neurotypicals:
“donated significantly more in the observer's presence than absence. By contrast, people with high-functioning autism were not influenced by the presence of an observer at all.”
While much of this study is permeated by a pronounced autism-as-deficit bias (see Autistics: less biased. Researchers? for an exploration of this), I have to give the researchers credit for the ingenious scenario they put in place to justify the presence of another person during the study. The test ran on a computer monitor, and the observer was presented as a technician who had to be in the room because “we’ve been having computer problems”. They even went so far as to simulate a system crash. Impressive.
In both these studies with autistic subjects, the decision-making of the autistic participants wasn’t influenced by the social situation or social pressure. In general, the autistic kids didn’t care whether the person who did the drawings was in front of them or not, and similarly, the adults deciding whether to donate money didn’t care whether there were other people watching what they were doing. In contrast to the neurotypical participants, those on the spectrum remained rational and objective and weren’t thrown in their choices by changing social situations. If you don’t care what people think of you, then pressure to conform or respond to group pressure has little impact. I cited Bob Dylan when considering this on Autistics Don’t Do Heuristics: “If you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.” As I said there, behaviours such as groupthink and various “don’t rock the boat” behaviours work through group pressure, and so are only effective if you’re concerned about your group status.
Thus far, we’ve looked at reduced interest in reputation management, and seen that when making decisions, people on the spectrum tend to plough on regardless, not really too bothered by the presence of others, or of what they might think. The second autistic characteristic that plays a role in group decision making is what’s known as weak central coherence. This is an idea first proposed by Uta Frith in her 1989 book Autism: Explaining the Enigma. For more of an overview of this theory, and to see where Frith’s ideas have been taken since the publication of her book, the Wiki entry is worth a look.
Weak central coherence is the idea that in general, people on the autistic spectrum don’t see the forest for the trees. It’s a tendency towards seeing the details rather than The Big Picture or the gestalt, a bottom-up rather than top-down view of the world. A simple example of how focusing on details works is that autistics are generally better at those “Find the Panda Amongst the Snowmen” puzzles. Differences in details tend to jump out, making people on the spectrum in-demand in areas such as surveillance and intelligence. All those satellite photos of empty desert that look identical? Not to many autists. So, not so good at seeing forests, but often very good at seeing trees. This is another autistic strength, and in reality, instead of speaking of “weak central coherence” it would be more accurate (and less pejorative) to use a term proposed by leading autism researcher Michelle Dawson, “enhanced perceptual processing”.
I described this ability elsewhere here as an autistic Get Out Of Jail Free card. Before group behaviours and biases can even start to have an influence, you need a) a group, and b) to recognise that you’re part of it. But a group is a “big picture”, so if you don’t do contextual “big picture” thinking, then the group and your place in it won’t be as clearly defined, even to the extent that you may not even be aware of the group at all.
So, for example, if there’s no group, there’s none of the security and overconfidence that being part of a group brings, and as such, autists are not going to be prone to the bias of group shift with its increased risk-taking by the individual members. And if there’s no group, there’s no other group either, so there’s no in-group or out-group bias. There’s also no groupthink with its pressure to conform, because once again, there’s no group, or at the very least, a much weaker sense of “I’m part of this group”. So when it comes to group biases their influence is reduced or can be non-existent.
This ability to resits social pressure was confirmed recently using a child-friendly version of the classic Asch study from 1951. In the original, the aim was to examine the extent to which group pressure could incite an individual to conform, even when the group’s position is obviously wrong. Participants in a group were asked to judge the comparative length of a series of lines, giving spoken answers so everyone could hear. Asch found that:
“people were willing to ignore reality and give an incorrect answer in order to conform to the rest of the group.”
In the new version of this test, autistic children were shown images of some brightly coloured, friendly-looking snakes, and asked to pick which were the same length. The fly in the ointment was that they were sometimes misled by the researcher into what other people thought, e.g. “most people think that this one is the same size as that one”, when clearly the two were different. The researchers found that:
“Children with autism were much less likely to conform in the misleading condition than typically developing children. This study demonstrates the resistance of children with autism to social pressure.”
(Yafai et al., 2014)
Bonus points here to these researchers for managing to avoid presenting autism as a deficit, or as an absence of neurotypical capabilities. A gold star in particular to Mr. Verrier for his other projects, such as his research into the impact of the mere-exposure effect on voting in the European Song Contest. The kind of real-world psychological research we need more of.
What we’ve looked at in this article is autistic people’s response to group behaviour in the context of a) absence of reputation maintenance and b) weak central coherence. Regardless of which of these processes are playing out, in all these scenarios the outcome is much the same: people on the autistic spectrum:
“give a low rating to social cues during decision making”
(Sevgi et al. 2015)
Accordingly, they’re more consistently rational in their choices and decision-making. Bandwagon behaviour? Forget it, if you’re on the autistic spectrum, there is no wagon, band or not.
Copyright © Peter Crosbie 2016. All rights reserved.
Coralie Chevallier, Catherine Molesworth, Francesca Happé (2012)
Keise Izuma, Kenji Matsumotob, Colin F. Camerera, and Ralph Adolphsa. (2011)
Kendra Cherry. (2016)
Abdul-Fattah Yafai, Diarmuid Verrier and Lisa Reidy. (2014)
Meltem Sevgi, Andreea O. Diaconescu, Marc Tittgemeyer, Leonhard Schilbach. (2015)