Simon Baron-Cohen, of mindblindness fame, uses autism to examine the psychology of dishonesty. He concludes that the central reason people with autism are so honest (and so vulnerable to liars) is that they have difficulty developing a theory of mind for other people.
And then there are people with autism. Their neurological condition leads not only to difficulties socializing and chatting but also to difficulties recognizing when someone might be deceiving them or understanding how to deceive others. Many children with autism are perplexed by why someone would even want to deceive others, or why someone would think about fiction or pretense. They have no difficulty with facts (version 1 of reality) and can tell you easily if something is true or false (“Is the moon made of rocks? Yes! Is the moon made of cheese? No!”). But they may be puzzled by version 2 of reality, that “John believes the moon is made of cheese.” Why would a person believe something that is untrue?
They have major difficulties grasping that another person might hold a false belief that to that person is true. A large body of experimental research shows that while the typical child achieves this understanding easily by four years old, children with autism are to varying degrees delayed in this area of development. As a result, they show some degree of “mindblindness.” Even the higher-functioning children on the autistic spectrum, such as those with Asperger’s syndrome, show delays in the development of mind-reading ability. This neurological (and ultimately genetic) set of conditions can leave the person with autism or Asperger’s syndrome prey to deception and exploitation.
And even after twenty-five years in the field of autism, I am still shocked. A Ph.D. student with Asperger’s syndrome said to me last week, “I’ve just discovered that people don’t always say what they mean. So how do you know how to trust language?” Her “discovery” at the age of twenty-seven is one that the typical child makes at age four, in the teasing interactions of the playground.
Hat Tip: The always interesting MindHacks.