Would people with autism make good social psychologists? The answer is yes, according to a new study from researchers at Yale University. Although autism affects the ability of individuals to gauge the emotions and mental states of other people, they are capable of analyzing the behavior of people in general, according to Anton Gollwitzer, a doctoral student at Yale who co-authored the study.
Working with senior author John Bargh, Gollwitzer analyzed the results of an online quiz taken by 6,595 people from 104 countries. Participants attempted to predict how people in general would react to a social situation. Sample questions included: “Do people feel more responsible for their behavior in groups than as individuals, does catharsis work: If I am angry, will taking out my hostilities on a stuffed doll make me feel better, and on average, do people work harder in groups or as individuals?”
To some readers surprise, those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) scored slightly better on those questions than participants without autism. Gollwitzer believes the general nature of the questions allowed participants with autism to view them more analytically, without evaluating the emotional states of specific individuals. This ability might help them compensate for challenges in reading others’ mental states in order to function in a social society.
“People with ASD traits seem to be able to analyze how people in general will react in a social situation, even if they have difficulties judging the mental states of individuals,” Gollwitzer said.
The study’s findings were published on September 9 in the journal: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.