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

by Emily Willingham

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?

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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

About the Author: Emily Willingham is a biologist, writer, editor, and author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to College Biology. She is the mother of three boys; her eldest has Asperger’s Syndrome. This piece first appeared on The Biology Files and is reprinted here by permission.

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14 thoughts on “Autistic people: insensitive to social reputation, sure, but what about empathy?

  1. Alicia says:

    Strange that when Autism scientists decides that autistic people have less empathy, every study result interpretation somehow shows now that autistic people have less empathy.
    “It has been well established that ASD features reduced empathy…”
    If the study has this on it it shows that they already wanted the result interpretation to be a certain way, whatever the result was it would be made to show a deficit in empathy.
    Is the empathy needed in the study case necessary to care about who is watching the autistic person or to care about the people who are going to receive your donation?
    When I make a donation, I empathize with who is in need of the donation, not with a person watching me, why does that say I have less empathy? I want to help others so that is not a deficit I have.
    I worry about what other people think of me more than anyone I know, but that would have nothing to do with a moral situation.

    I wonder if empathy is so common in the NT population why people care so little about others or understand one another so little? The NT world is not exactly a example of a world full of empathic people.

  2. Alicia is right. If NT people were so good at empathy, then I, all psychologists, and all counselors, would be out of work. We’re not! This Spectrum-excluding definition of empathy needs to be challenged by all awake people — NT, Spectrum, scientific, and otherwise.

    Primatologist Frans de Waal has a much better definition of empathy, which he sees as a nested set of abilities.

    No one has a perfect handle on empathy yet, but in de Waal’s definition, Spectrum folks are not thrown out into the cold. I took his definition from his book and commented on it:

    “Dr. de Waal organizes empathy as three separate, nested functions:

    PERSPECTIVE-TAKING, or the ability to understand things from another’s viewpoint. Dr. de Waal links perspective-taking to our capacity to perform “targeted helping,” or appropriate interventions into other people’s lives. I like to think of targeted helping in terms of gift-giving. If you’re really good at figuring out the perfect gift for others, you’ve got a good handle on perspective-taking.

    CONCERN FOR OTHERS, or the ability to understand the emotional and physical pain others might be feeling. Dr. de Waal links concern for others to our capacity to skillfully offer consolation. This skill seems to be a difficult one to put into action for many of us. It can be hard to offer consolation in ways that work for the other person. I wonder: do we we have difficulty offering consolation because we don’t want to take the perspective of the person in pain?

    STATE-MATCHING, or the ability to understand and share the emotional states of others. Dr. de Waal links state-matching to our empathic capacity for emotional contagion. I don’t know if I love the idea of “contagion,” but it is descriptive, isn’t it? Think of contagious laughter, or contagious crying; our brains help us feel what others feel because it helps us create and nurture community.”

    From: http://karlamclaren.com/the-age-of-empathy/

  3. ictus75 says:

    If I have to read another “Autistics lack empathy” article I’ll just gag!

    Wake up, in this case it has little to do with “empathy,” and everything to do with “ego”! NTs who are watched will bid higher to appear like they are better persons, bigger donators. This is clearly ego driven. A characteristic of Aspies/Autistics is a lack of EGO—we don’t want to, nor need to be the center of attention, nor need to impress others. We tend to care less what others think about us, while to most NTs, that is of primary importance.

    So again this “study” is flawed because they insist on judging Autistics by NT rules! What a joke!

  4. Jennifer says:

    What strikes me the most is the assertion that autistics have “less intrinsic motivation to help others.” Improving your reputation is an EXTRINSIC motivation. I would be interested to know how the actual donation levels (before observation) varied between the autistic and NT test subjects, since that’s really what would indicate “intrinsic motivation.” This study is a perfect example of how even the most well-conducted study can have its conclusions biased by assumptions. Valid results =/= valid conclusions.

  5. I beg to differ here not only with the notion that autistic people lack empathy but also with the idea that autistics also don’t care about what people think and are unconcerned with peputations. Well, my daughter is officially dxed with autism and she does care about people think about her. She gets upset at being ignored by her peers and has cried over it. And though I lack an official dx (because of lack of access and $$$), while I’m not out to impress others or to be the cnter of attention, I also care about what peope think of me and their ignoring me or rejecting me gets me down. Please, let’s be clear here about what is meant when we claim that autistic people don’t care about what people think about them. This stereotype of autism contributes to the nonsemnse that autism inhibits empathy.

  6. John Makin says:

    The first thing that SBC and those who quote him need to do is ti work out what Empathy is!

    As previous comments have pointed out, we do not have egos that need massaging.

    We feel too much for others, not because we can know how they feel but because we can surmise how they feel.

    Even the ever wonderful NT’s do not KNOW how someone is feeling but can work out that they are upset from the circumstance they are in when we are taling about an organisation like UNICEF for we are dealing with generalities not personal circumstances, with statistics not individuals.

    Such studies as these are pure nonsense!

  7. John Makin says:

    Empathy is a very vague term to be bandied about in scientific documents. What is meant when it is used?

    One needs to be clear as to what one is referring, for there are different aspects that have very separate meanings and relevance.

    Sympathy is sorrow for another’s adversity.
    Sympathy may be felt for individuals or groups.

    Empathy is understanding and sharing with another’s feelings.
    Empathy may be generated directly, by association with the subject, through such means as body language, or indirectly by reports of events.
    Empathy is felt on a personal level for individual subjects.
    One needs to identify and understand what is the trigger for the empathic response.
    Can one identify any differences in the empathic emotions generated by different individuals?
    How is the Empathy demonstrated?
    Is it demonstrated or internalised?
    Does the level of empathy shown depend on being seen?
    If so is it genuine empathy or mere show?
    Can Autistic people suffer from emotional over stimulation when empathising?

  8. Jayn says:

    “Insensitivity to social reputation in autism”

    *headdesk* Believe me, I am NOT insensitive to my reputation. Do I care what others think of me? Oh hell yes! The problem is, I can’t tell what they do think of me, or what they expect of me. It’s been a tremendous source of anxiety for me throughout my life. If I seem indifferent to the expectations of others, it’s because I’ve never been good at figuring them out, and I’ve given up on trying to match them.

    If I seem insensitive to how others regard me, it’s not because I don’t care. It’s because I’m incapable of conforming. If these researchers had any idea of the kind of pain that autistics go through because of this, maybe they’d be worth reading.

    • gabex says:

      You hit the nail right on its head. That is what my neighbor – who does research in autism has more or less told me.

      I find the choice of words when one writes a paper very complicated indeed – and I write about policy (recent graduated with a Ph.D). I keep on editing and re-editing. Because of that, I try not to do big fuss about wording but I understand that they may be used as weapons and have been used as such.

  9. As I note in the article above: “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?”

    And I close with this: “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?”

    I also observe the tautological nature of studies that use the SBC empathy quotient to assess empathy.

  10. Peter Davey says:

    If we shift the working definition of empathy from feeling for the observed to communicating those feelings, the discrepancy disappears. Oddly, though, to non-spectrum observers there is no apparent difference between those definitions.

  11. gabex says:

    There is no difference in the level of donations between the two groups when the observer was absent.

  12. gabex says:

    A few things are missing from the account that may in turn bias the conclusions.

    One, there was no difference in donation levels between both groups when the observer was absent. Researchers changed some parameters such as the amount that would end up in the charity for instance,and both groups responded in the same manner.
    Two, the “observer”. A computer malfunction was simulated to give an excuse to introduce someone (the observer) whose job was to record the subjects’ choices in every round – that was the argument provided by the researchers to the subjects.

    I am in no way related to psychology or psychiatry so I cannot open judgement on the choice of words, or how damaging some of those choices might have been in the past or in the present.
    I find those kinds of experiments very interesting. I would like to use those types of experimental setups to answer questions on how to better design policy. Now I see that such use may open a can of worms…

  13. John Makin says:

    Is not the problem here that the researchers regarded the empathic response to being observed and ignored the empathic response to the charity?
    The Autistic response was more focussed on the charitable donation, the NT response on their personal standing?

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