Field of Science

Autistic people: insensitive to social reputation, sure, but what about empathy?

You may have witnessed the observer effect in action if you've ever attended a charity auction. People are watching as bidders compete, either on paper in a silent auction or loudly in a loud auction. The audience observes. The bidders compete. The bids climb, all in the name of charity. But if these folks were sitting alone in their living rooms, pondering how much to donate to the worthy organization, would they be considering an amount as high?

Probably not. Social pressures for donating can be powerful. Your name is there. People are watching. You care about that because you don't want to look bad. You care because you don't want to look stingy or, heaven forfend, poor. You care because you want people to think you care, possibly that you care more than you really do.

Unless you're autistic, according to a recent study. Authors collected 10 people they refer to as "high-functioning" autistic and 11 people considered to be "neurotypical" (NT) and put them head to head in a donation situation in which the recipient was the ever-worthy UNICEF. The authors had participants calculate their level of donation based on how much the participant would lose relative to how much the charity would gain. The participants made their decisions alone and then made decisions with an observer in the room.

With an observer in the room, the NT participants elected to donate significantly more than they did when they were alone. But donations from autistic participants did not change significantly when the observer was present. In fact, when another person was in the room, autistic participants elected to slightly but insignificantly decrease how much they donated to UNICEF.

The researchers ruled out social ignorance about the presence of another person by having all participants complete a continuous performance task with and without another human in the room. Both groups performed better on the task when someone else was observing, indicating that yes, autistic people were certainly aware of the other's presence.

The title of the paper, "Insensitivity to social reputation in autism" (sorry, not open access), speaks the authors' conclusions. They determined that autistic people perceive social reputation to be irrelevant and are immune to social pressures related to "best behaviors" when other people are present. Meanwhile, non-autistic people do seem to care about how others view their socially positive behaviors and want to put their best foot--or donations--forward if others are watching.

I find these conclusions fascinating on many levels. As a social species, we keep each other in line, performing for the good of the community, by keeping an eye on each other, Big Brother Primate style. The mere presence of another member of our species helps to ensure conforming and socially positive behaviors (usually). Of course, if members of our species decide en masse to engage in negative behaviors, that also seems to give the go-ahead for joining in, dropping individuality and having a riotous free-for-all. After all, everyone's doing it, right?

But autistic people--at least the ones in this study--are the nonconformists. They honestly donate what they think is appropriate to donate whether someone is watching or not. They were aware of the other person--even driven to perform better on a task when someone was present--but didn't feel the social pressure to show off their socially positive behaviors by enhancing their generosity for the benefit of the audience.

I was on board with how the authors described their findings and how they set up the study. The group was small, but the design seemed clean, including a questionnaire to ascertain whether the groups differed in their perceptions of the worthiness of UNICEF (they did not) or in their perceptions of the importance of donating (they did not). But then, I waded into the discussion of the paper and found myself face to face with the following question and statement:
Might people with ASD be immune to observer effects simply because they have less empathy for others (less intrinsic motivation to help others)?...It has been well established that ASD features reduced empathy...
Observations like these always make me wonder if investigators have ever lived with anyone with autism, ever spent enough time with them, day in and day out. The question of empathy and autism is extremely controversial to autistic people, who find it offensive that people say, offhandedly, that they lack empathy. Almost all of the work suggesting that autistic people lack empathy arises from the research of Simon Baron-Cohen (SBC) (yes, Sacha is a distant cousin). In fact, studies that aren't from the SBC research group typically rely, as the current study did, on the Simon Baron-Cohen Empathy Quotient value to determine whether or not an autistic person exhibits empathy. In other words, the only work reporting that autistic people lack empathy arises from a value for a scale developed by someone who's determined that autistic people lack empathy.

SBC has taken the time to engage on this subject with the autism community, but not to their satisfaction. I think he's wrong in the parameters he builds around empathy and his conclusion that autistic people lack it. My experience, and one that many others in the autism community voice, is that autistic people may lack the detection skills to read a face or body language and determine feelings and attitudes from them, but once they're aware of someone's feelings--happiness, anguish, anxiety, hope, fear--they feel them too much. Far more than the average "NT" person.

Thus, to see repeated again, in the current paper, that it is "well established that ASD features reduced empathy" sets me to headdesking so hard I may have suffered a subdural hematoma. And not only because I think researchers are wrong in their tautogically based insistence that autistic people lack empathy. It's also because a certain irony appears to have escaped them.

The irony is in asserting that autistic people lack empathy when--and stay with me here--the "NT" people in this study didn't rely on their own feelings for the "other" to determine their donations. Instead, they relied on whether or not someone was watching them. Their level of donation didn't come from how strongly they felt or sympathized with the "other" (in this case, UNICEF). Nope. Social pressure, the knowledge of being watched and judged, the desire for presenting as personally generous--those are the emotions that drove their level of donation. Whose empathy is the less self-involved here?

This "no empathy in autism" meme requires more critical evaluation. Is empathy specifically the power to detect via typical social cues how the "other" feels? Or is it being able to feel strongly on their behalf once you know what their feelings are? Could it be that autistic people are too little assailed by personal social attention to themselves--such as someone watching them engage in social behavior--to care whether or not that person is judging them, but still perfectly capable of engaging in shared feelings on behalf of and in support of another human being?

Photo credit: Silent auction boosts charity donation. Northwest Air Ambulance, via Flickr.

Reference: Izuma et al. PNAS. Insensitivity to social reputation in autism. 2011. doi:10.1073/pnas.1107038108


  1. Thank you. Thank you VERY much!

    You have now entered the dark side. You obviously don't believe in science or you would KNOW autistic people lack enpathy. They have statistics to back it up, you know...(snark!) And numbers never lie. (ahem...)

  2. Even considering my personal involvement in the disseminating of this particular story--and the ham-handed way the press has dealt with it--I agree with your concern about that one part of the discussion section. (I don't have input on the writing of the scientific articles themselves...) I know very well from personal experience that empathy is not lacking in many/most/all people with ASD. It may be somewhat unusual in its manifestation--witness my son, who will burst into tears and make up a bruise or wound when he accidentally bumps or steps on me--but it's there. I have personal, positive feelings about the motivations and insight of the PI on this paper, but that's neither here nor there. Your objection is a more than reasonable one. I don't think it impacts the study--and I know you're not saying it does--which I found really interesting. Frankly, I would aspire to be more like the participants with autism: I want to do what I do in terms of giving money or time or whatever based on my own internal moral compass, rather than whether or not someone else is watching me and I don't want to look bad!

  3. TC, exactly. Like I said, I think it seems like it was nicely designed and had reasonable interpretation in terms of insouciance about reputation among autistic people that sounds accurate to me from personal experience. It's the empathy part of that discussion that just doesn't ring true to me. Of course, you'd have to be in the midst of that fight to go beyond "the literature says this" to even consider challenging it. If you haven't been over to TPGA and read Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg's post from today, you should go read it. It's excellent.

  4. Just having a look at the paper now. One of the more notable things (other than the empathy facepalm) is that only four of the 11 control subjects can be said to have shown an "Observer effect". The other 7 were just like the autistic adults and gave the same number of donations regardless of whether someone was watching them. But nobody's accusing them of lacking empathy.

  5. Nice observation, Jon. So really, 4 out of 21 people showed an observer effect and they were all NT.

  6. You are correct, of course. As someone with an autism spectrum disorder, it's very obvious that if anything, austistic people have *more* extreme empathy reactions than NT people, as you said. But we simply don't read emotions subconsciously, and we don't care about reputation. (Perhaps because we don't notice it? I don't know.)

    Thanks for getting this right.


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