Autism & Reputation

People with autism process the concept of their social reputation in a fundamentally different way from non-autistic people, a new study finds.

"No animal shelter donations for you, Cratchet!"

Suppose I give you $100, and tell you you can donate some or all of it to the no-kill animal shelter across the street – or you can just pocket the whole wad and walk away. My guess is that a) you’d donate at least some of the money whether or not you really care about adorable puppies – and that b) the amount you donate would be higher if I’m standing right there watching you.

That, of course, is because whether or not I tell you explicitly to donate some of the money, you probably have no desire to behave like Ebenezer Scrooge in front of me. In short, your brain is wired to warn you that a public act of pointless selfishness is, socially, a non-starter.

But people with autism process this dynamic in a completely different way.

As the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reports, a team led by Caltech’s Keise Izuma presented autistic volunteers with similar situations, and compared their behavior against that of a control group of non-autistic people. They found that when social reputation came into play, people with autism just didn’t seem to find it significant:

When asked to make real charitable donations in the presence or absence of an observer, matched healthy controls 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 in this task.

In other words, volunteers with autism consistently donated the same amount of money whether they were being watched or not. It’s not that they’re more selfish than anyone else – it’s that a reputation for altruism simply doesn’t factor into their thought process as they make those particular choices.

This groundbreaking work represents the first hard scientific evidence of a specific, quantifiable difference between the cognitive processes of autistic individuals and those without autism.

The research team confirmed their results by comparing how autistic people vs. control subjects performed on a simple math exam when they were being watched, as opposed to when they weren’t:

Both groups performed significantly better on a continuous performance task in the presence of an observer, suggesting intact general social facilitation in autism.

Thus, the team’s conclusion is that people with autism seem to lack – at least somewhat – a cognitive process that would allow them to intuitively take others’ moral opinions into account. Since autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are widely regarded as more developmental than strictly physiological, this study’s results help support the idea that our instincts about others’ opinions are learned, rather than inborn.

To understand exactly why the brains of autistic people work in such an fascinatingly unusual way, we’re going to need to do some diffusion and/or functional MRI scans of their brains as they make these choices.

But as for the rest of us, our minds are calibrated to flood us with reward chemicals when we perform generous acts – and evidently, those rewards are greater when we perform those acts in the presence of people whose opinions we care about.

So this holiday season, why not start a new tradition: gather all your friends together and go volunteering, or babysitting, or donating – or, hell, go save a kitten from a burning building. Whatever floats your happy little boat.

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