Yes, they really are irrational

Or at least, more so.

If you have ever sat on the sidelines thinking to yourself that the humans don’t make sense (to the point that others compared you to the character Spock from Star Trek), there is some research evidence vindicating that perspective.

Professor Ray Dolan’s research group at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging, University College London, have an article in the recent issue of Journal of Neuroscience (link to press release). Using a study to examine the decision-making in autistic and neurotypical subjects, they found that the former were less likely to be swayed by “framing effects” in the opportunity descriptions.

“People with autism tended to be more consistent in their pattern of choices, their greater attention to detail perhaps helping them avoid being swayed by their emotions,” says Dr Neil Harrison.

Although this attention to detail and a reduced influence of emotion during decision making is beneficial in some situations, it may be a handicap in daily life, explains Dr Benedetto De Martino.

“During social interactions a lot of information must be processed simultaneously, making this a very complicated computational task for the brain,” he says. “To solve these complex problems we rely on simplifying heuristics – gut instincts – rather than extensive logical reasoning. However, the price that we seem to pay for this ability is that sometimes irrelevant contextual information leads us to make inconsistent or illogical choices.

“Less reliance on gut instincts by people with autism may underlie their difficulties in social situations, but also enable them to avoid potentially irrelevant emotional information and make more consistent choices.”

As ever, it helps to remember that the benefits or problems associated with skewed skill sets will always be affected by how necessary or valued are those skill sets.  The important part is to enable people by arranging their (home, job & school) workloads that will utilise their skills, rather than accentuate their deficits.  After all, we all have skills and deficits — some of us have more pronounced skills and/or deficits.

3 Comments

  1. codeman38 said,

    17 October 2008 at 15:04

    Y’know, I think the issue of pure logic vs. “simplifying heuristics” affects more than just the game-theory stuff that was the focus of this study.

    I think this may be one of the reasons I have so much difficulty making sense of traffic patterns, to the point I still do not trust myself behind the wheel of a car– I seem to be more inclined to use logical reasoning to make sense of traffic, which is not a good thing when in a car going 55 miles an hour!

    (Well, that, and the whole fragmented perception thing… when one doesn’t actually see the traffic patterns as a whole, that sort of throws a wrench into things too…)

  2. thenewrepublic said,

    17 October 2008 at 13:25

    It’s a sort of Stating The Bleedin’ Obvious Study, but it’s nice to hear the academics have caught up with what we all knew already.

  3. 17 October 2008 at 12:40

    Autism rules!!!! I will now do the extremely logical Vulcan ritual happy-dance.


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