Unlike the Rest of Us, Autistics Don't Act Like Angels When Someone's Watching

By Valerie Ross | October 17, 2011 12:10 pm

We want others to think well of us—so if we know someone’s watching, most of us tend to behave a little better. People with autism spectrum disorders, however, don’t, a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found. Since most people, psychologists think, clean up their acts out of concern for their social reputation, the new study bolsters the idea that people with autism and related conditions don’t take into account, or perhaps fully understand, what others think of them.

In the study, both high-functioning people with autism spectrum disorders and healthy controls matched for age, sex, and IQ did a simple charitable giving task: They were shown a variety of ways money could be divvied up between themselves and the charitable organization UNICEF, and given the option to OK the split or keep the whole sum for themselves. (To make this more than a thought experiment, the experimenters picked one of the trials at random and followed through on the participant’s answer.) Both groups gave about the same to charity while alone. But when an experimenter watched some of the trials, the control group donated significantly more—while the volunteers on the autism spectrum didn’t change their behavior.

As Kate Shaw explains at Ars Technica, this difference in behavior can help researchers probe the underpinnings of autism spectrum disorders:

So, it is clear that people with autism don’t increase their charitable donations when they are being watched. Why not? There are two potential explanations: first, they aren’t able to make the cognitive leap to understand how others form impressions of them, or second, that having a good reputation simply isn’t rewarding to them.

Read more at Ars Technica.

Image: iStockPhoto

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Mind & Brain
  • http://kforcounter.blogspot.com Cody

    The theory of mind aspect kind of bugs me. I suspect I am on the high functioning side of the spectrum, and I would claim I have a strong understanding of theory of mind, (though I often struggle to decide which emotional state someone is in), the problem seems to me to be radically different ways of thinking.

    I suspect most people make the mistaken assumption that they can read other people’s emotional states accurately/reliably, but when you happen to think more generically in the first place you’re obviously more likely to correctly guess (by chance) another person’s emotional state. Thinking of it in terms of the Dunning-Kruger effect it could be that autistic spectrum disorders may be too aware of what other people could potentially be thinking/feeling, and their increased awareness leads to second guessing their conclusions, decreasing their rate of success.

    But what’s bugging me is the description that it is a problem with their theory of mind: what is wrong with thinking my private behavior ought to match my public behavior? Or the idea that I ought to be honest to both myself and others. Whether I gave a lot or a little, I would want others to know the conclusion I drew and my reasoning. I could even justify giving less when watched, as I tend to hate attention, (even the most basic gestures of generosity often elicit a small amount of praise—which I typically dislike). I tend to have a good reputation but very much of it is owed to my genuine honesty, whether positive or negative to my social standing. (Though I find public pity just as discomforting as public praise, and I try to avoid boasting and glooming equally.)

    Yet another hypothesis could be: they don’t consider a positive increase in reputation to be valuable if it originates from a lie.

    But I imagine there are still additional hypotheses.

  • jd

    Or C) they view changing one’s behavior based on people watching you or not is the same as lying. Doing something you view as good only because someone sees you do it is dishonest. Says a high functioning autistic.

  • jd

    I see Cody beat me to it. I completely agree.

  • http://theviewfromhell.blogspot.com Sister Y

    Since one functional argument for religion is that it gives us an imaginary person to always “watch” us (like Santa Claus), making us behave better even when no real person is watching us, this seems highly relevant to the observed fact that autism correlates highly with atheism.


  • http://changelog.ca/ Charles Iliya Krempeaux

    Perhaps the title should instead be: “Unlike the Rest of Us, Autistics Don’t Act Like DEVILS When Someone’s NOT Watching”. I.e., perhaps Autistics act “good” regardless of whether someone is watching or not.

    There is some evidence for this. See the following paper (on moral psychology):

  • http://teleprestexan.blogspot.com/ Stephen Daugherty

    As somebody who’s somewhat autistic, let me put my two cents in as to what the proper interpretation might be.

    I think that it isn’t as if the person’s psycho- or sociopathic, that they’re just incapable of caring about such things. The impulse to be social is strong. That’s why autistics can sometimes unload on people, rather than filtering and giving and taking. They’re simply doing what nature programs us all to do: make connections with others.

    I would say that the problem is that folks like us don’t synchronize well, at least not as an intuitive, natural skill. It’s a learned behavior, a sort of persona gained over years of experience at our not so successful efforts at reaching out to others. Depending on the degree of severity, the asynchrony might be so severe as to completely discourage most social interaction, and that asynchrony is compounded by the fact that people thereafter fail to gain the nuanced, detailed experience that gains a person insight into others and their motivations.

    But whether or not it’s that severe, I would say that a person like me depends less on the unreliable signal of synchrony from outside, and the give and take, and more on a kind of remote, offline sort of theory of what behavior that is proper, right, equitable and fair is.

    So, to my mind, the explanation of the result might very well be that whatever amount that the autistic person has decided upon relies not on the unreliable signal of synchrony, but their own internal pragmatic, ethical, and moral compasses of decision-making.

    In other words, the neurological and experiential bias for an autistic is to think for themselves, and remain true to whatever combination of individual principles and sensibilities they use, and resist adulteration of that judgment without sound, rational understanding as to why.

    Which is to say that simply having another person standing in the room is not going to encourage them to give more than they’ve already given them, because they’re pleasing their own self-consistent sense of what’s right and wrong, rather than responding to that of others. That is not to pass judgment on others, but simply to say that a neurotypical and an autistic are taking different pathways on the road to making the same decision, and the character of the different pathway that the autistic uses alters how others can influence their decision making.

  • http://DiscoverMagazine Templar 7

    Since when do autistic people make donations to charity? They actually have that much money to work with???Seriously…

  • http://www,debrasanders.com debra

    Or, they do not realize you are watching them. I used to work with kids with Aspergers and found consistently if I looked at something and asked them what they thought I was looking it–they missed it every time. Their eyes did not track my eyes and that influenced their behavior and responses significantly. After realizing that, I built in direct instruction training to teach that…so this too might have contributed to the subject’s response….along with the other factors listed above. Personally, if someone’s personal behaviors are ethical and safe, I just love the fact that there is not so much a “personal” face and “public” face. Think how that might better our world if more of us behaved like this!! Thanks for the above comments to everybody–I enjoyed reading them and there are some great points made!

  • ec

    As a high-functioning programmer with Asperger’s…I have to agree with the idea that changing one’s behavior because someone is watching is fundamentally dishonest. It baffles me when others do it.

    I am who I am, seen or unseen…

    Maybe we just aren’t as hypocritical and adept at subterfuge as a group but the real flaw in the study is that they are judging us as a group when we are as individual as any other segment of the population.

  • José

    Debra–That would make sense if the experimenters were playing legos with children, but the test subjects here are high-functioning adults who volunteered to take part in a study. they understand that the experimenters are there to observe them and can infer that that is what they are doing, regardless of whether or not they can tell exactly what the experimenter’s eyes are looking at.
    At least i assume they can, I am not autistic.
    Templar7, autistic people are not necessarily mentally handicapped, or poor, or whatever you are suggesting. You also seem to have missed the point, seeing as they were not actually asked to give money to UNICEF, they were given money and asked to decide what to do with it.

  • http://www.heavymetal.no Triskelion

    I personally feel the exact way that Cody and some of you others reason about this. I sometimes just don’t get it why I should behave otherwise with people than what is really me. I can see the other perspective, but I have come to see it as invalid and a bit dishonest every time I think about it. And the atheist hypothesis seems spot on. I simply don’t understand religion on a non-mechanical level. And there is also a big leap from this way of acting consistently to the conscious manipulation of others and callous disregard like in the groups that are mentioned above (socio- and psychopaths).

  • T-cell

    ec gets my applause! Well said.

  • Aaron

    Well said, Jose. High-functioning means NOT mentally handicapped. Since I’m practically anonymous here, I’m not going to feel bad about talking myself up a little. I have Asperger’s and I have an IQ of 168. I’m sure the two are related, and I wouldn’t have been gifted with such a high IQ without the genes for Asperger’s. People I meet don’t realize I’m on the Autism spectrum until I tell them, because I’m intelligent enough to step back and redesign my own behavioral patterns to better interface with neurotypicals like yourself. In other words, I’m able to fake it because I can identify how I differ from “normal” people. People just see a quirky, unusually smart guy with an odd sense of humor and a penchant for excessive honesty. (Translation, Templar7: Because I’m smarter than you, I probably make more money than you, and because I’m not a judgmental jerk, I probably have more friends than you, too. I imagine the same is true for most of the people who have posted on this page.) I don’t lack a theory of mind at all, I just have a different version that fits folks like me instead of “normal” people. I’d love it if people would finally get over this preconceived notion that there’s a “right” way to think, and a “right” way to live, and a “right” way to socialize, and realize that “right” only applies to our morals, not our methods. We each do things our own way, and there is no natural law or heavenly mandate that says that the most common way to do things is the best way. Normality isn’t so special that it makes you better than us. We on the Autism spectrum are your peers, not your lessers, and you should value us because we offer a rare, outside perspective on your own way of thinking.

  • http://kforcounter.blogspot.com Cody

    debra, concerning the unification of one’s public & private lives, it’s a little bizarre how frequently people endorse the notion as if it were anything other than their own decision. It reminds me of a scene in the movie Contact, where two main characters make the following exchange (after David has taken advantage of Ellie’s honesty to win over a committee):

    David Drumlin: I know you must think this is all very unfair. Maybe that’s an understatement. What you don’t know is I agree. I wish the world was a place where fair was the bottom line, where the kind of idealism you showed at the hearing was rewarded, not taken advantage of. Unfortunately, we don’t live in that world.
    Ellie Arroway: Funny, I’ve always believed that the world is what we make of it.

    How odd is it that social norms inhibit us so strongly, and yet they are nothing but our construction? To me it’s all a strong motivation for dismantling dogma, ritual, and the rest of it, especially when one considers how many taboos are nearly universal among humans.

    But on a personal level, all one needs is a desire to understand the reasoning behind one’s own behavior, and a modicum of introspective skill, from there it is up to us to decide how open to be—or not.

  • Stwart Jenssen

    Oh my god, you can’t put a label or a disorder on everybody who has a personality and doesn’t fit a generic mold. That’s like saying everyone who is quiet and keeps to themselves must be autistic or have social anxiety disorder. LAME. I happen to work with autistic children, most of which have Aspergers and I can tell you that just by watching Amanda speak in the courtroom that she does NOT have autism. Most notably how she uses a lot of expressive hand motion when speaking. Aspies do not do this! They use very little to no body language, they have difficult time reading other people’s body language. Their facial expressions are flat, their voice is monotone, they often make inappropriate eye contact- either too much or not enough, their posture is awkward, etc. Amanda displays none of these characteristics. You should probably pick up a book on the disorder, before trying to go around diagnosing everyone with it.

    Stwart Jenssen

  • Aspies Are Dangerous

    As someone who was repeatedly visiously attacked by a dangerous “high-functioning” Aspie, I think that this failure to change behavior reflects the lack of observing object relations development because of the mind blindness. It suggests a lack of conscience is present due to failure to internalize other people (objects) and their judgments, a prerequisite for appropriate, non-dangerous, social behavior.

  • michele

    Cody, you rock! Exactly.

    “Yet another hypothesis could be: they don’t consider a positive increase in reputation to be valuable if it originates from a lie.”

    “But I imagine there are still additional hypotheses.”

  • michele

    Hello again. Here is a link to the essay “Ketman” out of Milosz’s classic THE CAPTIVE MIND. On acting… http://www.ketman.net/captivemindchapter3.html Fascinating stuff.

  • Aaron

    #16, I think what you’re trying to say is that if a person cannot recognize another person as more than an animated object, morals don’t come into play. I agree with you on this unfortunate fact. However, I don’t think that is the typical case for Aspies. I don’t have “mind blindness”. I have body language blindness. I can’t read the *superficial* cues that tell me what someone is thinking or feeling. This does not make me incapable of recognizing that other people, like myself, have intentions, desires, needs, and motivations, nor does it keep me from recognizing that those internal drives resemble my own in their workings, albiet less so for neurotypicals than for other Aspies. It does not justify or mitigate the suffering you experienced, but your attacker was probably driven by extreme, overpowering frustration, which can unfortunately drive anyone to violence if it is bad enough. And being an Aspie is very frustrating, especially living in a world where our own needs and motivations are so often overlooks or trivialized and dismissed.

  • Sharon

    The choice that is made is logical. Someone watching or not watching does not change the logic behind the choice. Ego is irrelevant when making a logical choice.

  • Michelle

    #15. I disagree with you. I think your work has been limited to people with more severe cases of autism. People with Aspergers do not necessarily have flat affect and monotone voices, or use no body language. In fact, I am working with a very high functioning young man right now who is quite expressive, although not always what is considered situationally appropriate. He listens to English comedies on his Ipod and will repeat them word for word as he is listening, with all the emotions and body language that are being conveyed by the actors. Then he will break into loud laughter as something amuses him. In the classroom my main problem is that he misinterprets what others say and do, and is quite intent on having everyone follow his very black and white understanding of the rules. Now he has accepted that as the teacher I enforce the rules, not him, things have been smoother…although I do have to remind him occasionally. Lest you think that he is slow, he is taking third year French, calculus and chemistry among his classes.

  • http://www.seebs.net/log Seebs

    What do you mean “no one’s watching”?

    *I’m* watching.

    So, yeah. It’s not that I don’t know that other people form opinions of me based on my actions. It’s that I form opinions of me based on my actions, so I act in ways I think are appropriate. If other people might judge me differently, well, okay. So?

    I am not acting to put on a show. I am acting to achieve the results I want.

  • VeLuz

    “Normal” people can learn a lot from people with autism or developmental disabilities. My son is high functioning autistic and my brother is developmentally delayed; they are the most honest and innocent people I have ever known. They have taught me so much. Unlike the rest of us, autistic people act accordingly.

  • NMCB3299

    Third, we do not seem able to get a good, well paying job due to our disability and therefore wish to keep as much of that money for ourselves as we can. We know that money is the means to live comfortably. Our lack of it may make us tightfisted when we aquire it. Watched or unwatched we would still be tightfisted. Maybe we would change if society did not marginalize us where employment was concerned.

  • NMCB3299

    You make the most sense. Us Aspies are marginalized when it comes to getting jobs and therefore have no cash to spare for donations’ to any charity.

  • NMCB3299

    I am a high functioning “Aspie” and would never attack someone unless provoked and only to defend myself against physical attack or rape. I can say that NT people are dangerous too. Timothy McVeigh was an NT man and he blew up a building full of people. Most of the German men who enlisted in the SS were NT and what they did was unspeakable and resulted in the death of thousands of people. This Aspie who attacked you, did he feel threatened in some way? or did he just run up to you on the street and attack you? Possibly he was an NT man under the influence of drugs or crazy. That has been known to happen sometimes. When I was on deployment with the Navy Reserve I was brutally attacked by a Navy Dentist who was a bit crazy and an NT. He broke my back left hand molar all the way down to the root. It got abscessed and infected so I was in constant pain. My face was covered in bruises from him hitting it. In my opinion NTs’ can be dangerous too.


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