Autism and logic: Do people on the spectrum make more rational decisions?

Decisions are based on the way choices are framed.

Most of us use emotions when making a decision. Something I’ve always struggled with is body language, so there have been moments in my life where I’ve come across as dismissive or rude, when I haven’t meant too. Equally, If a surgeon tells you that you have a 20% chance of dying from an operation, thats going to be significantly less reassuring than being told you have an 80% chance of surviving. Its not so much the meaning thats important, its the means used to convey meaning.

I’ve described before the way in which I perceive the world is quite overwhelming from both an emotional and a sensitivity point of view so I am quite prone to using shortcuts in my thinking, like having a reliance on routine. One negative of this is that there have been scenarios where due to my overreliance on routine, I feel like I’ve missed out on experiences. This is why advertisers use terms like “don’t miss out” but also presume to know what “you love”, appealing to your base instinct for familiarity. Despite this, scientists are still trying to understand why emotions have such a powerful influence.

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As an autistic person, am I less likely to be influenced by my emotions? Some studies seem to think so. Indeed, they attribute this to ’emotional blindness’ – the process by which autistic people have trouble deciphering thier own emotions as well as those of others. When given 50 pounds in a gambling scenario, people are more likely to gamble their money if they think they are going to ‘Lose 30 pounds’ than if they stand to ‘Keep 20 pounds’, even though both options are the same. Except when this idea was studied, although people with autism chose to gamble just as often as neurotypicals, the phrasing of the opportunity had less of an effect.

Participants were also asked to close their eyes and count their heartbeats in order to measure how well they perceived their internal sensations. Finally, emotional awareness was measured using a questionnaire. Interestingly, of the non autistic participants, those who correctly monitored thier heartbeats and thus more in tune with thier internal sensations, were more susceptible to manipulation. Autistic participants however, were fine at monitoring thier heartbeats but there was no relationship between how well they did this and their susceptibility to the framing effect.

What about scenarios where there is a moral decision to be made? These ‘moral reasonings’ are measured in a famous test called the false belief test. The latest versions of the test asked questions like ‘a man traveling in Africa, encourages his friend to swim in a pond after seeing other tourists frolicking there. His friend gets bitten by a mosquito and contracts malaria, is the man to blame?’. In this test, autistic people tend to lean towards saying ‘yes’. In multiple cases, they assign blame to individuals who intended no harm.

All this is very inconclusive. The tests on moral judgement show that an autistic person is able to identify when someone has been through hardship, even if they struggle to distinguish between intention and effect. The ones on gambling show that autistic people can see through emotional manipulation. Speaking from personal experience, I know that I’m deeply emotional but also analytical and aware of certain media tricks.

This post will look at some of the reasons why this might be the case, and will assess some of the models we have for explaining ‘the autistic mind’.

Complex Minds

“My mind is associative and does not think in a linear manner. If you say the word ‘butterfly’, the first picture I see is butterflies in my childhood backyard. The next image is metal decorative butterflies that people decorate the outside of their houses with and the third image is some butterflies I painted on a piece of plywood when I was in graduate school. Then my mind gets off the subject and I see a butterfly cut of chicken that was served at a fancy restaurant approximately 3 days ago”

Temple Grandin

Complex systems, in simple terms, are anything that comprise multiple factors in deciding outcomes. For example, the food chain. There are multiple reasons why theres a ‘pecking order’ of animals – too many for one human brain to comprehend at once. Nature is also obviously in a constant state of change, which is another factor of complexity. Our inability to naturally comprehend loads of different factors as to why something happens, leads us to come up with simple answers – ‘this animal is higher on the food chain because its bigger’ – but this applies to multiple issues, which don’t have simple answers. Why do people become homeless? Why is there obesity? If you keep an eye out later, you’ll see that I have given a potential reason as to why so many autistic people struggle with mental health, when there are obviously many reasons.

A complexity map…Lucid, right?

Just to clarify, no one can comprehend complexity, not even autisitc people. That would stop humans from making mistakes because we’d be able to comprehend every possible outcome of each one of our actions. Attempts to chart every cause of issues like obesity can be equally as befuddling.

Despite that, there are some ways of thinking which are more details based than of others, and these come more naturally to autistic people. One of these is bottom up thinking. Put simply, this is the ability to see details before categories. Its the same skill which allows me to trawl through multiple sources and cut them down into a blog post. The autistic mind is bombarded with sensory information through multiple stimuli, allowing them to process detail.

Similar to this is associative thinking . In my very first blog post I talked about seeing connections between seemingly unrelated elements. Rather than my thoughts feeling sperate, each thought connects to the next like a great interconnected web of related and more loosely associated concepts. 

Finally, there’s analytical thinking. People with ASD tend to reason more logically and there is decreased susceptibility to the framing effect in people with Autism. This means that autisitc people are less influenced by emotions or instincts than neurotypical people.

All this should lead autistic people to make more logical decisions, right? Well, maybe, but not quite. As I’ll explore in this next section, the relationship between emotion and logical thought is not overtly simple.

Understanding or emotionless?

Lets clear up a misconception; autistic people do not lack emotions. I bring this up because some of the theories pointed to throughout this blog portray the autistic mind as being like a computer i.e better able to understand the nuances of data or the complex workings of institutions like governments. When it comes to me, anything involving music or politics provokes me to want to find out everything about why a genre exists or why a decision was made. That said, I still have a strong emotional connection to those topics as they are part of what defines my personality.

Ironically then, one complex system we have trouble deciphering is the way our own feelings work. The last major source of grief I experienced, was in 2015. That did effect me on an emotional level. For the next few days I kept forgetting simple tasks, and my attention and ability to do work was hindered. My body was clearly going through the indicators of grief, but it took a while for the feeling of sadness to hit me. It was like staring at my emotions through a glass wall. I was conscious of them, but until the glass finally shattered, I felt an odd sense of separation from them. Its an incredibly weird experience. In this case my head was certainly not connected to my heart.

This state of being is known as alexithymia and its one of the scariest factors in autism – its when you are quite literally estranged from your emotions. Different people have different levels of alexithymia and even some neurotypical people experience this form of ‘blindness’. Some autistic people experience this so severely that events like thier own wedding can feel leave them cold. I’m grateful that mine is on a low setting – like I said, I’m still quite emotionally vulnerable, but I cant deny that I’ve sometimes been in positive situations where I’ve been separated from how I’m supposed to feel. Those situations hinder my confidence and my social interaction.

You might be thinking, well you clearly feel strongly about experiencing alexithymia, how does that manifest itself? The answer to that is anxiety and depression. Indeed, this may explain why about half of all people on the spectrum suffer from these.

In individuals with alexithymia, the association between how someone feels and thier physiological responses is reduced. They sometimes report feeling strongly about something when their bodies are in a state of calm and at other times they may report feeling calm when, they are physiologically is in a state of panic.

“It seems to be this relative break-down in people’s awareness of their body’s state of arousal that plays an important role in symptoms of anxiety, both in people diagnosed with ASD as well as in the general population”

Sebastian Gaigg, University of London

The impact this has on decision making is debatable. When I walk in to a shop I think that I’m not that influenced by the special offers on display. Obviously, we’d all like to think that, but in buying anything, you still have to reach a slightly emotion fueled judgment about what you want. This makes shopping for anything an incredibly stressful experience for me, where I feel a need to weigh up the pros and cons and every item.

This dosent necessarily mean that I make better decisions or am more rational. While I might be analytical, its next to impossible not to be at least slightly influenced by to factors such as money, time and personal circumstance. In the case of the grief I experienced in 2015, that actually made me less rational, because while the disconnect meant that I was able to go about my routine, the fact that I was unable to understand how I was feeling made me less sure of myself.

This isn’t even all that strange. An emotional response often underpins our actions, without us being aware of it. Even if you rely on what you call ‘logic’, your logic might not be the same as anothers. I’m very much the type to jump to the conclusion that someone dosent want to speak to me anymore, after they make a harsh comment, and I’m ashamed to say that while the fear of that makes sense, its resulted in me missing out on opportunities to make friends. You might have a metaphorical file cabinet of resentments and thoughts towards people or places that you think you are logically avoiding, when really you are missing out on overlooked details. I’m at a point where I can admit that those people I avoided might have been going through a turbulent period in thier lives, just as I hope that people that I have accidently appeared rude to by crossing my arms or not making eye contact, can see a bigger picture.

“some of our “logical” assumptions and decision-making is actually influenced by his feelings. The bottom line is that all of us, neurotypicals and divergent thinkers, need to check in with our emotions to think genuinely logically”

Marcia Eckerd, PhD

An Atypical Perspective

Complexity can enhance out understanding of issues: Through learning to see issues such as poverty, homelessness or mental health on a wider, more detailed level, we might not be so quick to assign blame, and more eager to address problems on a macro, societal level rather than a narrow, single minded level. As somebody who often jumps naturally to bottom up thinking, I struggle to understand the thought processes of people who see the world in more simple terms. That said, I think a more detailed analysis of the problems we’re facing today, can aid our societies and leaders in decision making.

Defining the autistic mind as a computer is harmful: The reason I take issue with this is that computers are cold and emotionless machines, adept at comprehending complexity. While autistic people are very analytical and have detailed thought processes, the existence of elements like ‘special interests’ and the anxiety that can arise from not being able to decipher our emotions, proves that we are more than just replicas of ‘rain man’.

Emotion and logic are not always separate: To understand why you have reached the conclusions and beliefs which you hold, you have to understand thier connection to your emotions, and that what might be logical according to your interpretation, may be completely illogical to somebody else. Again, human minds cannot account for everything. Emotion is the tool we use to fill in the gaps in our knowledge, autistic people especially so.

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