By Emma Young
We know from past research that autistic people process the world differently at a perceptual level, including showing reduced sensitivity to context. One consequence is that they’re better than average at finding figures in complex shapes. But does this way of looking at the world also influence their higher-level decision-making? According to a new study in Psychological Science, it does: William Skylark and his University of Cambridge colleagues George Farmer and Simon Baron-Cohen found that people with autism spectrum conditions (ASC) – as well as people in the general population with relatively high levels of autistic traits – make more “conventionally rational” decisions, which could influence everything from how they vote to what products they choose to buy.
The team recruited 90 men and women who had been diagnosed with an ASC and 212 neurotypical controls and presented them with ten consecutive pairs of products, which differed in each case on two dimensions (for example, one USB stick (A) had relatively high capacity but low longevity, while the other (B) had low capacity but high longevity). Each pair was also accompanied by a third “decoy” product. In every case, the participants had to choose which product was “best”.
Participants saw each product pair twice. On one occasion, it was accompanied by a decoy that was fractionally inferior compared with product A; on the other occasion, the decoy was fractionally inferior than product B. Earlier work using this kind of challenge has shown that while people rarely choose the decoy, it makes the product that is marginally better seem more attractive than the other option.
While conventional accounts of rational choice dictate that a person’s preference be independent of the other options on offer, this often isn’t actually the case. “If one prefers salmon to steak, this should not change because frogs’ legs are added to the menu,” the researchers explained. However, the thinking of neurotypical people is swayed in exactly this way and what Skylark and his colleagues wanted to know is whether the choices of people with ASC are influenced in this way too?
They found that they were – but to a lesser extent than controls. The autistic participants made more consistent choices about which product was best, showing they were less influenced by the decoys.
When the team repeated the study with people drawn from the general population who scored either relatively high or relatively low on a measure of traits typically associated with autism, they found a similar, though less marked, difference between the two groups.
“These findings suggest that people with autism might be less susceptible to having their choices biased by the way information is presented to them – for instance, by marketing tricks when choosing between consumer products,” says Farmer. Indeed, given that choice consistency is usually seen as rational, autistic people’s reduced sensitivity to context “would provide a new demonstration that autism is not in all respects a ‘disability’,” the researchers wrote in their paper.
However, there is also work finding that in situations where someone isn’t sure about what decision to make, using context and new information about other options may be useful. (“Whereas conventional accounts of rational choice dictate choice consistency, emerging Bayesian frameworks construe preference reversals as an adaptive response to uncertainty about the value of an option,” the team explained.)
So there could be a price to pay for autistic people’s reduced sensitivity to contextual influence – and that “may be a reduction in the potentially adaptive updating of beliefs about optimum choice that comes from using local comparisons to inform decision-making,” the researchers said.