Everybody wants to handle money well and make positive economic choices for their future; however, it often doesn't work out so well. Some believe that being economically responsible is a character trait, but researchers have found that there may be an entirely different correlation for specific people. Adults who have autism spectrum disorder have been displayed heightened abilities in terms of making good decisions economically, compared to those who do not have autism spectrum disorder. For more information on the researcher's observations, the study has been published in Psychological Science.
Those affected by autism
In the United States, it is estimated that around 1 in 68 children are affected by autism spectrum disorder, which is sometimes referred to as ASD. This statistic is reported by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); however, they have trouble reaching a conclusive number on how many adults are affected by the disorder, due to the fact that it can often go undetected. However, many researchers have proposed that the number could be over one million, just in adults in the United States.
Leaders of the study
George D. Farmer co-authored the study, who has a background in Cognitive Science, Cognitive Psychology, and Behavioral Science at the University of Cambridge. Alongside Farmer was Simon Baron-Cohen who is a Professor of Psychopathology at the University of Cambridge, the leader of its Autism Research Centre, and a Fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge. The third co-author was William J. Skylark, who is a senior lecturer, also at the University of Cambridge, as well as a psychology researcher.
Before the authors began their study, they assessed what their hypothesis would be by evaluating certain specificities of those with autism. Many say that those with autism spectrum disorder, through testing of cognition and perception, can appear to be immune to what is called "contextual stimuli." Contextual stimuli are stimulants that affect the context of a situation, without being an active part of it. Therefore, because of their ability to dissociate a situation from its contextual stimuli, those with autism spectrum disorder are often better at isolating information to analyze it.
Previously, certain researchers have tested those with ASD and without ASD on their ability to identify certain figures that were hidden in other shapes. Those with ASD performed better on this test as they were less distracted by the other shapes, a "contextual stimuli." Farmer and his team wanted to simulate this type of study, but with a different goal in mind. They wanted to compare decision-making abilities, and whether those with autism spectrum disorder would similarly display a heightened ability.
Farmer explained a little more about why they decided on this line of research this in particular by stating, "people with autism are thought to focus more on detail and less on the bigger picture. This is often found in more perceptual studies, for instance by showing that people with autism are less susceptible to some visual illusions. We wanted to know if this tendency would apply to higher-level decision-making tasks."
How they conducted the study
The researchers set out on their study by analyzing 302 adults. 90 of these adults had ASD and 212 did not. The participants were all requested to pick one product that they thought was the best out of a pair of products, which acted as an online decision-making task the researchers would be able to analyze.
During the study, 10 of these pairs were presented to the participants. However, the items within the pairs were unalike in two different dimensions. Not only that, but the participants also had a third possibility to select a "decoy."
During the test, the participants were allowed to examine the pairs two times, but no more. During the first viewing of the pairs, the decoy product was utilized as a distraction from the first option, while during the second viewing the decoy product was used to distract from the second.
One of the options provided in the task was a pair of USB drives. However, as they had to be different in two dimensions in each set of pairs, one had only 16 gigabytes but had a longer lifespan of 36 months, while the other had a very large capacity of 32 gigabytes but only lasted 20 months. The third option, or the decoy, had a storage capacity of 28 gigabytes and a lifespan of 16 months, which fell short of both of the other options in the pair. By behaving rationally and consistent, both times that these options were presented, one would stay away from the decoy option. Each time, the decoy was the worst option. However, from being economically irrational, as well as prone to inconsistent choices, some did decide on the decoy either the first or second time they were presented with the pairs.
However, this was not all. After the online task was completed by the participants, the researchers evaluated their cognition and assessed whether they possessed any traits that are commonly linked with ASD.
Results of the study
The study orchestrated by Farmer, Baron-Cohen, and skylark yielded that "neurotypical" adults, or adults without ASD, were more inconsistent in their choices than those with ASD, meaning that they switched their decisions more often.
Farmer explains, "these findings suggest that people with autism might be less susceptible to having their choices biased by the way information is presented to them - for instance, via marketing tricks when choosing between consumer products."
A second experiment
After their first experiment, the researchers sought to further confirm their results. They created a second experiment, of similar tasks, but only to the participants scoring in the top and bottom 10 percent of a traditional ASD measuring scale. Through this second experiment, they were able to further solidify their results of the first. That results being that adults who possessed more traits in line with autism make far more rational and consistent decisions than those who display more neurotypical traits.
A note from George D. Farmer
Farmer explains his findings by stating, "people with autism are indeed more consistent in their choices than the neurotypical population. From an economic perspective, this suggests that people with autism are more rational and less likely to be influenced by the way choices are presented."
Because this study has portrayed the heightened ability of those with autism spectrum disorder to combat distractions and display rational decision-making, certain stigmas surrounding autism may begin to fall. Despite their abilities to perform in jobs, the unemployment rate of those with ASD is between 75-85%. Studies like these are vital to spreading knowledge of the capabilities of those with ASD, so this statistic can begin to change. Heightened decision-making skills and aversion to distraction are two excellent traits that employers seek when hiring, but because of bias and unawareness, those with ASD usually don't get the chance to display these skills. Studies like these are capable of changing the rhetoric and narrative surrounding those with ASD, proving that in many ways it is a strength as opposed to a disadvantage.
The authors explain, "[c]hoice consistency is regarded as normative in conventional economic theory, so reduced context sensitivity would provide a new demonstration that autism is not in all respects a 'disability'."