In the “Trust Game”, men with more autistic traits were less influenced by their partner’s facial appearance 

By Emma Young

We make all kinds of snap decisions about a person based on their facial appearance. How trustworthy we think they are is one of the most important, as it can have many social and financial consequences, from influencing our decisions about whether to lend someone money to which Airbnb property to book.

However, as the authors of a new study, published in the British Journal of Psychology, note, “Although facial impressions of trustworthiness are formed automatically, they are not especially accurate predictors of trustworthy behaviour.” People who are less susceptible to forming these impressions could, then, be at an advantage. And, as Jasmine Hooper at the University of Western of Australia and colleagues now report, men with high levels of autistic traits fall into this category. 

Earlier work (involving two authors of the new study) already hinted that autism might have a bearing on whether people act on first impressions in a typical way. The researchers found that when they prompted boys diagnosed with autism to judge trustworthiness from photographs, they formed the same kinds of impressions as non-autistic boys, but unlike them, they did not use these judgments in their decision-making in an economic trust game. 

To explore whether higher levels of autistic-like traits, such as increased attention to detail, might also affect the use of first impressions even among the general population, the researchers recruited 46 men without autism, who completed the Autism-Spectrum Quotient (a symptom-based scale which is typically used by clinicians to diagnose autism) and a facial trustworthiness impressions task. The researchers found that, as they predicted, when prompted to make trustworthiness judgements from faces, people with high or low levels of autistic traits made similar judgements. But the next phase of the study showed some important differences between the two groups.

All the participants also took part in an adult version of the economic trust game used in the earlier research with boys, in which they interacted with virtual “partners”, who had been independently rated as looking either trustworthy or untrustworthy. Over a series of trials, these partners were consistently fair or selfish, and crucially this behaviour pattern was not related to their facial appearance. Therefore the best strategy for predicting future behaviour – and making money, because participants could keep their winnings – was for the participants to ignore appearances and focus solely on their partner’s behaviour in previous money allocation trials. 

Again as the researchers predicted, the men with relatively low levels of autistic traits were influenced by how trustworthy or not the partners looked. The men who scored relatively high on the AQ scale were influenced too, but to a significantly lesser extent – they were more influenced by their partners’ actual behaviour. 

Only between 1 and 1.5 per cent of people in the UK are thought to meet the criteria for a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. However, many other people do not meet the diagnostic criteria for autism but do have relatively high levels of autistic traits – there may therefore be a sizeable subset of people who are able to form trustworthiness judgements based on people’s faces when prompted, but who don’t do this automatically, and also aren’t so inclined to use these judgments in their social decisions (and so are less swayed by potentially misleading facial impressions than the rest of the population). 

As the researchers note, “If facial impressions are not especially accurate predictions of actual trustworthiness, failure to use them to guide trust decisions may actually represent highly rational social behaviour.” 

Should I trust you? Autistic traits predict reduced appearance‐based trust decisions

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest

8 thoughts on “In the “Trust Game”, men with more autistic traits were less influenced by their partner’s facial appearance ”

  1. Almost everyone I know is a cheater, should I disregard the overwhelming evidence and then get harvested by a hypergamous monkey-branching parasite, or should i stick with an evidence based, reasoned statistical approach. That is the autistic perception of trust. Those that trust are usually either cheaters themselves, who don’t care if they get cheated on or people who are either too unobservant or who cannot face the emotional trauma of admitting that any potential partner is likely to have been guilty of infidelity, at some point, so they employ faith, instead of evidentially robust methods in coming to a decision on whether to trust. Most relationships fail and most men and woman are likely keepers of lies, about past or current affairs. In what sense is the autistic person the one with the dysfunctional approach to trust? Haaaaa

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    1. I’m lucky enough to have only trustworthy friends. None of my friends would cheat on their boyfriends/girlfriends/wives/husbands. If they did, they would tell me about it because i’m super unjudgemental, but they never would. If you want to have a trustworthy person, I think it might be more likely to find them among highly emphatic people who have a lot of patience/determination, because if they are highly emphatic they wouldn’t want to hurt their partner and if they had patience/determination, then they would also have the tools required to resist any temptation of cheating when it presents itself. Even higher likelihood of finding faithful people is if you look among asexuals since they won’t have any temptation to start with.

      But there are of course lots of people who aren’t emphatic, determined or asexual but are still faithful. Many of my friends belong in this category as well. 😀

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      1. Sounds like bad faith on your part to me. You may have no reason to say that your friends have cheated, yet neither have you reason to say your friends have not cheated. They may tell you most of their secrets, yet they could also keep things hidden from you. For me, there are things I would never tell anyone. Though currently, I let them know that there are things I can’t tell them (so at least they know they don’t know). I’ve been fortunate enough not to have cheated on anyone, though have been forced into situations where I could have been an accomplice in cheating (a married women kept coming onto me, and I ended up getting overly stressed and suffered migraines which prevented me from doing anything. After the second time when I knew it wasn’t a fluke, I avoided here). This does not mean I could not cheat in future (though I can say I really, really do not want to because I don’t want to hurt others–or myself). The same person is trustworthy and untrustworthy, kind and unkind, empathetic and unemphatic. They are the affirmation of themselves and the negation of themselves. Empathy itself can stop someone from cheating, but also enable it if you feel you have a “connection” with somebody.

        The point I am trying to make here is you can’t be certain of how others are. Hell, you can’t be certain of how you are as a person as well. You may think you’ll never do something because your a good person, but you end up doing it. Likewise, you may think your an utter scumbag whose only caused harm to other people and end up doing something good.

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      2. Yes, you cannot be 100% certain of how others are, but haven’t you ever had a friend who doing a certain thing would seem like a ridiculous idea? Like, wouldn’t you say with at least 90% certainty that one specific friend of yours would not climb on your roof and start singing there? You can’t possibly argue that the chance of any ridiculous thing happening is always 50%, right? For some people, cheating would be just as much of a ridiculous idea. Yes, most people would be like you in this respect. They have to struggle not to cheat and to be a good person. But then there are others, who couldn’t care less about being a good person but would nonetheless never cheat.

        And the same way, you can also be certain about yourself in some very specific areas. Sure, there are thousands and thousands of situations where i would have no idea how i would be without having experienced it. When people ask me what i would do in some situation and i reply that i have no idea, they get upset for some reason. As if i’m just expected to lie about it :/ But there are also situations where i would know what i would do, if the situation is described fully. Like sure, if i was in an abusive or suppressive relationship, i might cheat, i don’t know what i would do because i just cannot imagine that situation. But when we talk about cheating or not cheating, i wouldn’t even consider an abusive relationship by default. I would consider a normal voluntary relationship which is the most likely for me to end up in, and in that case, I know what i would do. Sure, there might be other exceptions, but at some point (higher than 98% certainty) you just have to start writing statements as statements and without the likelihood 😀

        I’m not going to give you my life story and the reasons that support my knowledge of how i would act in a certain situation, since now the conversation is not about how we would act but rather whether it is knowable to some degree or not 😀 And also because i don’t need to prove myself to anyone! 😀

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