Cognitive Daily

Autism, memory, and personality

i-eca0cf2af9fc3ac4445c7dff7d8aab70-research.gifThe brain can be a good multitasker, using the same systems for unrelated functions. For example, the sensorimotor system may be used for imagining objects and concepts. What’s more, when one part of the brain fails to do is job, another part can sometimes fill in the gaps.

Yet some disorders do cause intractable problems. People with autism, for example, have difficulty recognizing personality traits in others. While the specific neurological cause of autism has yet to be isolated, one hypothesis suggests that the key is an inability to develop episodic memory. If you can’t recall the specific behaviors of an individual, then you’re not going to be very good at predicting their future behaviors.

People with autism can learn workarounds for this problem: they can attempt to catalog emotions in the same way they catalog other bits of knowledge, like state capitols. Generally, however, this strategy isn’t nearly as effective as the natural emotional processing in normal individuals.

Personality researchers have identified a mechanism for personality assessment: People have a database of personality trait summaries for people they know (Mom is kind, Dad is forgiving). These memories can be accessed 5 to 6 seconds faster than episodic memories. When a trait summary is accessed, it also activates episodic memories that are inconsistent with the trait (when Mom didn’t help my sister after she tripped; when Dad stopped speaking to his brother). This is useful, because it alerts us to the type of situation when the trait summary might not be valid. Consistent episodic memories need not be accessed, since the summary will suffice in those situations.

Since people with autism have difficulty accessing episodic memories, they aren’t able to assess personalities of others as effectively as normal individuals.

But what about accessing information about our own personalities? Logic might suggest that we use the same mechanism for ourselves as we do with others. If that’s the case, a research team led by Stanley Klein reasoned, then people who have had autism for their entire lives should also be unable to accurately describe their own personalities.

Klein’s group has worked extensively with a patient with autism, who they identify with the initials “R.J.” R.J. is a 21-year-old male, mildly retarded, with a mental age of 12. The team gave R.J. and his family personality tests where they rated themselves and the other members of their family on 26 personality traits. When R.J.’s ratings of himself were compared with his mother’s ratings of his personality, they were significantly correlated (r=.56), and that correlation didn’t differ from normal individuals’ self-ratings and mother’s ratings (see this site for an explanation of correlation).

At first glance, it appeared that R.J.’s ratings of his family’s personality traits were also accurate. The correlation between his ratings of his mother and his mother’s self-ratings was also significant (r=.59), as were his ratings and his father’s self-ratings (r=.52) and his ratings and his brother’s self-ratings (r=.48). A closer analysis, however, revealed a different story. R.J. didn’t differentiate between the personality traits of his mother, father and brother. He gave them identical ratings on 17 out of the 26 traits tested. The correlation between his ratings of his mother and father was r=.89. By contrast, the correlation between his self-ratings and his ratings of his mother was a more modest r=.42.

Klein’s team also tested a normal boy (“T.M.”) with the same mental age as R.J. While T.M.’s ratings of his parents correlated with their self-ratings at about the same level as R.J., he differentiated their personalities much more than R.J.: his rating of his mother and father was correlated at r=.52, significantly lower than R.J.’s r=.89.

Klein et al. argue that while R.J. has an accurate representation of his own personality, he is using stereotypes to represent the personalities of even his closest family members. So while R.J.’s case supports the hypothesis that autistic people are unable to form a database of personality traits for others, it suggests that there may be a different mechanism for forming awareness of our own personalities.

Although R.J.’s autism prevents him from forming accurate assessments of others, it appears that either he has managed to work around the limitations of his disorder to form a good picture of his own personality, or that all humans have two mechanisms for learning about personality traits: one for ourselves, and another for others.

Klein, S.B., Cosmides, L., Murray, E.R., & Tooby, J. (2004). on the acquisition of knowledge about personality traits: Does learning about the self engage different mechanisms than learning about others? Social Cognition, 22(4), 367-390.

Comments

  1. #1 Not Mercury
    June 23, 2006

    Fascinating.

    While the specific neurological cause of autism has yet to be isolated, one hypothesis suggests that the key is an inability to develop episodic memory. If you can’t recall the specific behaviors of an individual, then you’re not going to be very good at predicting their future behaviors.

    Many autistic people I know have extraordinary memories and tend to store events more like video files. I think it’s possible to observe personality traits in others, and even remember and recall them as part of a memory, and still have trouble interpreting or assigning the ‘appropriate’ significance to those behaviors.

  2. #2 Joseph
    June 23, 2006

    Interesting post. Let me comment on some points:

    While the specific neurological cause of autism has yet to be isolated, one hypothesis suggests that the key is an inability to develop episodic memory.

    I strongly suspect that a specific explanation like this cannot be generalized even for a majority of autistics. And I don’t mean HFA vs. LFA or anything like that. It’s like trying to find a single cause for “mental retardation”.

    Klein’s team also tested a normal boy (“T.M.”) with the same mental age as R.J. While T.M.’s ratings of his parents correlated with their self-ratings at about the same level as R.J., he differentiated their personalities much more than R.J.: his rating of his mother and father was correlated at r=.52, significantly lower than R.J.’s r=.89.

    Findings like these are interesting, but one needs to be cautious about their interpretation. How was the mental age determined to be the same, for example? A variable not taken into account is that RJ’s parents are, in probability, more autistic (BAPy) than TM’s parents, so how does that affect their self-ratings? There could also be communication issues acting as proxies for the results. The researcher needs to ask RJ a question and expect RJ to interpret the question and give the answer in the same way TM would. So the results could be an artifact of a communication difference more than anything else. (Similar criticism has been given about Theory of Mind tests).

  3. #3 Arni
    June 23, 2006

    I find it rather odd to draw conclusions from this case study, and even more odd that this is in fact a case study. Why didn’t they try this on other autists and why can’t I find this article cited in the psychInfo database. Did the researchers lose interest in the subject, albeit these great results?

    The procedures in the study seem way to error-prone to make interpretations about different mechanisms of memory.

  4. #4 Matthew George
    June 23, 2006

    It seems more likely to me that autistic people tend to have a specific problem modeling the minds of others than a general memory fault. My (admittedly very limited) experience with functional autistics is that their memories are at least as good as mine, and better in some respects.

  5. #5 Phil Schwarz
    June 24, 2006

    I think there is a serious problem with most attempts to study performance on tasks as complex as recognition of subtle personality traits, or imputation of emotional state and intent in others.

    Experimental models for studying these tasks are necessarily simplified, in part not the least to control for potentially confounding factors.

    But then the results often do not support the generality of the interpretations that are applied to them.

    In studies of “theory of mind”, that is, the ability to represent some aspects of the mental state of others, the skill tested is almost always the ability to represent what (sub)set of *facts* (and specific beliefs based on directly known facts) is possibly known to the other individual.

    Correctly representing the subset of facts known to an individual in a given scenario, and beliefs likely held by that individual based directly on those facts, is a *much* less complex task than generally imputing emotional state, or motive.

    To prognosticate about the latter task based on results obtained regarding the former is wrong.

    The theory-of-mind hypothesis has been called into question for a number of reasons, including, for example, Morton Gernsbacher’s question about whether the experimental designs purporting to test it properly controlled for variance in the subjects’ understanding of the necessary subtleties of language.

    But there is one additional question that must be asked of the ToM hypothesis, that I have not seen asked, and I think that question may be relevant to Klein’s hypothesis as well.

    The question is whether non-autistics are actually successfully performing the more general tasks that the hypothesis supposedly finds autistic people failing at.

    In the case of theory-of-mind, I think there is plenty of reason to believe that the non-autistic majority is not particularly good at imputing emotion or intent to individuals significantly different from themselves. They get by, by imagining *themselves* in the other person’s situation, and imputing their own likely reactions and motives to the other person. If the other person is similar enough to them in enough relevant ways, their guess will be correct. *My* hypothesis — and I would love to see design and execution of experiments to test it — is that this is in fact what the majority does. And a critical (mis)interpretation of the theory-of-mind experiments is that they are doing anything more than that.

    Now think about the autistic individual, who is *dissimilar* enough from the vast majority of surrounding people in enough relevant ways, that putting themselves in the other person’s shoes will often enough *not* yield correct results. What an autistic person who sets out to master “theory-of-mind” skills must do, is to *construct* an abstraction of the majority’s reactions and motives — an abstraction in some ways quite alien to themselves. The relevant question is not “what would *I* do in their shoes?” but rather “what would ‘Joe Normal’ do in their shoes?”, where ‘Joe Normal’ is a name for that abstraction.

    I would argue that autistic people who *do* manage to navigate non-autistic society well enough to hold jobs, manage a household, and in some cases marry and raise kids (there will be a whole panel of us at the Autism Society of America’s 2006 annual conference next month), have to do just that, and in doing so, actually succeed at the business of accumulating expertise about the personality traits of others — at least those details that are relevant to their own successful navigation — to a much more exacting degree than the majority ever has to.

    And that the inability of other autistic people to do so is not a factor unique to autism, but is actually shared by a significant portion of the non-autistic majority, who can get by by substituting the simpler task of comparison-to-self for the one purportedly being measured or studied, by sheer numerical advantage of being part of a majority sufficiently homogenous to do so.

    So I’d love to see an experimental design that controls for that, by seeing how well both autistics and non-autistics perform on the tasks involved in learning the traits of a personality with an underlying emotional and motivational calculus quite different from their own. Autistic people are surrounded by people like that. Non-autistic people generally aren’t, and their performance in such environments is, I think, largely untested scientifically.

    In real life, one situation in which non-autistic people are in fact surrounded by people significantly dissimilar to them in emotional and motivational calculus, is as employees or overseers of facilities constructed for the housing of such people: group homes, special needs schools, inpatient psychiatric facilities, and so on. And in those institutions, there are far too many cases in which non-autistic people with *inadequate* understanding of the dissimilar emotional and motivational calculus of the residents/students are placed in charge of decision-making or supervision that requires such understanding.

    So I think the design and execution of experiments to measure the *majority’s* range of ability to construct a rich enough representation of personalities *significantly* dissimilar from their own, is not just an idle question. I think there is a very real need to be doing such research, and perhaps to use it to develop tools to (a.) measure the *exceptional* proficiency at such tasks that really should be a criterion for working with significantly dissimilar people, particularly in positions that confer tremendous power over other people’s lives, and (b.) to help *teach* and *develop* the skills involved in constructing sufficiently rich models of significantly different personalities, both to help more and more autistic people navigate the sea of non-autistic people they find themselves in, and to help train professionals working with our population to better understand us and to surmount the disconnects that lead to so many iatrogenic consequences in the lives of people on the spectrum.

    — Phil Schwarz
    Vice-president, Asperger’s Association of New England
    http://www.aane.org
    AS father of an autistic son

  6. #6 Chris
    June 24, 2006

    In the case of theory-of-mind, I think there is plenty of reason to believe that the non-autistic majority is not particularly good at imputing emotion or intent to individuals significantly different from themselves. They get by, by imagining *themselves* in the other person’s situation, and imputing their own likely reactions and motives to the other person.
    Excellent points. I’ve often felt the same thing – people aren’t really understanding others so much as they are projecting themselves into the other’s situation and imagining what they would feel – an approach that obviously doesn’t work for autistics. It also doesn’t work *on* autistics, which is why (it seems to me) “normal” people misestimate my reactions just as much as I misestimate theirs.

    In other words, autistics are not really any worse at estimating the reactions of people different than themselves than anyone else is; there are just a lot more people different than them.

    Knowing how a mind different than yours works *is* something that you can learn (I think), but I don’t think it’s instinctive to anyone – it seems to me that the brain instinctively uses the self-model as an other-model in the absense of sufficient information about the other. This assumption that the other is similar to the self may also account for the behavior Freud termed “projection”.

    The principal flaw in this type of case study (it seems to me) is that there is no simple way to measure whether R.J.’s family members really *do* have more similar personalities. (If R.J. is the only autistic in his family, that’s an obvious possible explanation for why his personality is less like his family members than they are like each other!) No attempt was made (apparently) to control for this possibility.

    Furthermore, either R.J.’s or T.M.’s impression of their family members’ personalities are going to be colored largely by *their own* interaction with those family members. The family members’ self-impression will be based on their actions both in and outside that context. If R.J.’s family has a shared “strategy” of interacting with him, he will evaluate their personalities partly based on that. Since T.M. is typical, his family members may be more likely to express their “real” personality in his presence and in interactions with him.

    In addition to that, I think that anyone’s interpretation of another’s personality is based partly on an implicit comparison to the evaluator’s own personality. If the evaluator is himself an outlier in personality, from his perspective everyone else will seem close together.

    While you state R.J.’s autism prevents him from forming accurate assessments of others, I don’t see how you (or the original researchers) could know how *accurate* any of the assessments were. R.J.’s assessments of his family members correlated with their self-assessments about as well as T.M.’s; so even under the questionable assumption that correlation with self-assessments is the standard of accuracy for evaluating the personality of others, R.J.’s assessments cannot be considered less “accurate” than T.M.’s. You might think that making the evaluations all so similar would necessarily make them less accurate, but in this case it actually didn’t!

    This is in addition to all of Joseph’s criticisms (and I’ll point out, since he didn’t expound on it, that “mental age” is often evaluated based on abstract reasoning, and it’s common in autistics for abstract reasoning to develop before interpersonal reasoning, relative to non-autistics; therefore it’s entirely possible that their mental ages – whatever that even means – were actually rather different. The researchers might have tried to control for this, but the use of the simplistic term “mental age” suggests it didn’t occur to them.)

    It’s possible they may be on to something, but these results are rather weak.

    (Disclosure: While I have not actually been diagnosed with any condition on the autism spectrum, I estimate that my personality traits are consistent with Asperger’s. Some of my family and friends who are familiar with descriptions of Asperger’s agree, although none of them are qualified to make an actual diagnosis.)

  7. #7 Kristina Chew
    June 27, 2006

    And how would an autistic individual who is minimally verbal (like my son Charlie), have their “ratings” assessed? From my observations, Charlie has a certain sensitivity to the peculiar traits–the personalities?–of others.

  8. #8 stan klein
    December 29, 2009

    Just a quick note on all the excellent and insightful comments. The purpose and design of the study was not to draw generalizations about autism, per se. Rather, our goal was to take a group with some relatively well-known cognitive limitations and see how those limitations effect self-knowledge generally.

    We have also done similar tests with amnesia patients, Alzheimer’s folk, ADHD, propospagnosia (i.e., face blindness) and others. Our primary goal is to draw generalizations about the scope and limits of self-knowledge, and to do so, one way we approach the issue is by examining folk for whom some potential component of self-knowledge is (in various ways, depending on the condition) “known” to be altered by the diagnostic category to which they belong. It is not to draw generalizations about the categories from which they were selected.

    Hope that clears up, at least, the generalization concerns of the data in this particular study.

    stan klein
    UCSB

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