The Honesty of Autism

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.


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This is something that I have wondered about, the connection between the ability to dissemble and abstraction. There is a boy with aspergers, seventeen, at my church. He has a really strong interest in music and as I am a songwriter, he and I have become pretty good friends. I have also been teaching him the basics of music theory, because he really wants to write music.

The experience is extremely entertaining at times. It is hard to explain, but his approach to songwriting, is very literal. He uses absolutely no abstractions, seems incapable of it. This wouldn't be so strange, but for the fact that my writing is replete with abstractions and I am his first actual music teacher (beyond the basic playing with various instruments in school). He tries, because he really wants to emulate me, but it just won't come out.

The other thing that I've noticed, is that he gets very uncomfortable, hanging out with me, when I am working. He really wants to do it, but I tend to be very stream of conscious when I write. I go off on tangents, writing bits and chunks of several songs at once. This seems to make him very uncomfortable. When he is writing, he gets very focused, on the predetermined section of a piece he is working on. He simply won't stop until he's satisfied with what he was trying to accomplish. I've learned to set very strict, reasonable goals when we work together. Goals that he can easily accomplish within a few hours.

All in all, the experience has led me to decide to go to school to study education, with a focus on working with young adults with autism (I also want to study educational theory, but that is unrelated). I can't begin to say how much I have gotten out of working with this kid. To say that he has forced me out of my box, would be an understatement. He has forced me to look at and work in my craft, through a whole new frame. I think that it has definitely had a fairly powerful, positive impact on the work that I produce. For that matter, our friendship has had a strong impact on my perception of the world around me, especially hanging out with him and my five year old son, together.

"People have no good reason not believe what what I am saying."

I do not claim to be the 'most honest person' in the world but will share a conversation from college days (as best as I remember it):  Somehow the issue of lying came up and I said that I did not knowingly lie as it was rather inefficient use of the brain. In human events and interactions, it is hard enough to know what actually happened.  Now try to remember 'what happened / was said' when no specific effort was made to store that info in your memory.  These are great demands on one's brain.  Next come the variations on the theme:  trying to remember what was told to whom and when about said event, ie, the fabrications / lies ....  For sheer protection of my own mind, I felt lying was a rather inefficient, if not wasteful, use of brain resources when as a student I had a lot more interesting things to put in my head. 

Furthermore, in our social interactions with others, would we not want to know the truth (at least sooner, rather than later) about each other; otherwise, how can be know each other?  Imagine a scientist who was given only false or partially true data in her understanding of a particular phenomenon.  It would certainly be difficult to know the reality of that phenomenon.  Are human interactions any different?  If I only know partial truths about someone, how can I get to know that person as a real being?

One must not only learn that the speaking 'OTHER PERSON MIGHT BE LYING,' but also that the listening other person might believe that you are lying, ie, that you not telling the truth. 

The point of this is that if one is apt to be straightforward, it comes as a 'surprise' when others do not believe what you are saying, even simple things, like a recent phone call in which the caller, Mary Roe, wanted to make an appointment with me.  I said that "I would prefer to meet with Joe Doe."  Mary proceeded to ask when she could make an appointment for me to meet with her.  I asked if I had not made myself clear, as I said "I would prefer to meet with Joe Doe."  I asked "Did you not hear me?"  She said 'Yes, she had, but "MOST PEOPLE DID NOT MEAN WHAT THEY SAY."'  I replied, "Well, I do.  Why would I say something I did not mean?" 

I am sure this 'straightforwardness' has had an effect on my interactions with others.  Around the same time as that college conversation, a young nephew announced to my sister "If Aunt Betsy says it, you can believe it."  Apparently, my young nephew had no difficulty realizing that some people are to be believed, others are not.  I remember marveling on his comment, both his perception and pronouncement of my veracity.

I was and am still learning, however, that some people do not believe what I am saying.  What about the 'truth sayers?'  How do they live in a world that does not believe them when they are merely saying what they believe to be true?

Recently, I emailed a new acquaintance that "I was going to Comic Con (here in SD)."  She emailed a question back:  "Are you really going to Comic Con?"  My reply:  "Why would I say I was going to Comic Con if I were not going?"  Do people make this sort of stuff up in their daily interactions with others?  I understand that Comic Con is about 'fantasy lives' but I live in a real world.

I guess this is the sort of 'truth sayer' learning that must be exchanged in my initial interactions with others... only their and my patience allows the relationship to proceed.  Others have said to me that I ought to be careful about what I say to others because of the weight people give my comments.  Are truth-sayers that easily recognized and readily regarded as 'different' from MOST PEOPLE WHO DO NOT MEAN WHAT THEY SAY? 

I would not consider myself autistic nor any of its milder variations but it has at times been interesting to live in a world of disbelief; imagine, at 55 years old, I still believe that people have no good reason not believe what what I am saying.

By Elizabeth, MD, PhD (not verified) on 28 Jul 2007 #permalink