Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Enhanced logical consistency in autism.

Dolan's group has an interesting open access article in J. Neuroscience showing:
behavioral evidence that autism spectrum disorder (ASD) subjects show a reduced susceptibility to the framing effect and psycho-physiological evidence that they fail to incorporate emotional context into the decision-making process.
From their introduction:
Logical consistency across decisions, regardless of how choices are presented, is a central tenet of rational choice theory and the cornerstone of modern economic and political science. Empirical data challenge this perspective by showing that humans are highly susceptible to the manner or context in which options are cast, resulting in a decision bias termed the "framing effect". We have previously shown that the amygdala mediates this framing bias, a finding that highlights the importance of incorporating emotional processes within models of human decision making. An ability to integrate emotional contextual information into the decision process provides a useful heuristic in decision making under uncertainty. This is a factor that is likely to assume considerable importance during social interactions in which information about others is often incomplete, ambiguous, and not easily amenable to standard inferential reasoning processes.

In this study, we investigated the effect of contextual frame on choice behavior of individuals with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD). Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by deficits in social interaction, qualitative impairments in communication, and repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior, interests, and activities. From Kanner's earliest description, it has been recognized that individuals with ASD have a strong tendency to focus on parts rather than global aspects of objects of interest and are unable to integrate disparate information into a meaningful whole (weak central coherence theory).

We previously proposed that susceptibility to a framing bias reflects the operation of an affect heuristic. Here, we show that individuals with ASD, a condition characterized by marked behavioral inflexibility, demonstrate a decreased susceptibility to framing resulting in an unusual enhancement in logical consistency that is paradoxically more in line with the normative prescriptions of rationality at the core of the current economics theory. Furthermore, insensitivity in these subjects to a contextual framing bias was associated with a failure to express a differential autonomic response to contextual cues as indexed in skin conductance responses (SCRs), a standard measure of emotional processing. Our findings suggest that a more consistent pattern of choice in the ASD group reflects a failure to incorporate emotional cues into the decision process, an enhanced economic "rationality" that may come at a cost of reduced behavioral flexibility.


  1. Sound cool but an Open Access Journal?!

    I'll go through it in more detail when I've time...

  2. (Ah! I get it, Open Access=Free to View, rather than Open Access=Not Peer Reviewed)

    But anyway, I can't help but feel that the framing of this study, like so much autism research is from a uncompromising viewpoint of 'autism as pathology'.

    It wouldn't take a Marxist to reformulate much of the article in more neutral 'autism as difference' terms.

    The authors without a doubt feel that this particular strength of an autistic thinker, is a weakness - which indeed it is in a purely social context.

    However, firstly, we creatures of the polis and each of us have an individual contribution to make towards the survival of our state.

    Not everyone is expected to be a doctor, or professor. Not everyone is expected to be an engineer or incorruptible cynic.

    Secondly, in evolutionary terms, a cool detached thinker, may well have significant advantages in out witting a predatory sabre-tooth tiger, while our more socially minded companions are pre-occupied with a blind, emotional fear response.

    Autistic features are not confined to those of us who are 'diagnosed' by a set of, what to my mind are, fairly arbitrary criteria.

    The autistic phenotype exists fragmented throughout our species.

    This wholly pathological attitude to autism, and the consequential drive to pin-down its genetic origin, seemingly for the purpose of extirpating the 'faulty' genes may well have dramatic, adverse effects on the overall health of the human mind. (cf Golgafrinchens)