Autism and Mind Blindness, Social Psychological Skill

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Autism May Not Be Tied to Mindblindness

After re-assessing other findings from 35 years of Theory of Mind research in autism, the researchers argued that the brain in people on the spectrum may be able to grasp what others think, but then may have a harder time processing the degree to which others think differently from themselves.

The most dominant theory of human social cognition, the theory of mind hypothesis, emphasizes our ability to infer the mental states of others. After having represented the mental states of another person, however, we can also have an idea of how well our thinking aligns with theirs, and our sensitivity to this alignment may guide the flow of our social interactions. Here, we focus on the distinction between “mindreading” (inferring another’s mental representation) and detecting the extent to which a represented mental state of another person is matching or mismatching with our own (mental conflict monitoring). We propose a reframing for mentalizing data of the past 40 years in terms of mental conflict monitoring rather than mental representation. Via a systematic review of 51 false belief neuroimaging studies, we argue that key brain regions implicated in false belief designs (namely, temporoparietal junction areas) may methodologically be tied to mental conflict rather than to mental representation. Patterns of false belief data suggests that autism may be tied to a subtle issue with monitoring mental conflict combined with intact mental representation, rather than to lacking mental representation abilities or “mindblindness” altogether. The consequences of this view for the larger social–cognitive domain are explored, including for perspective taking, moral judgments, and understanding irony and humor. This provides a potential shift in perspective for psychological science, its neuroscientific bases, and related disciplines: Throughout life, an adequate sensitivity to how others think differently (relational mentalizing) may be more fundamental to navigating the social world than inferring which thoughts others have (representational mentalizing).

Autism spectrum traits predict higher social psychological skill

Social-cognitive skills can take different forms, from accurately predicting individuals’ intentions, emotions, and thoughts (person perception or folk psychology) to accurately predicting social phenomena more generally. Past research has linked autism spectrum (AS) traits to person perception deficits in the general population. We tested whether AS traits also predict poor accuracy in terms of predicting generalized social phenomena, assessed via participants’ accuracy at predicting social psychological phenomena (e.g., social loafing, social projection, group think). We found the opposite. In a sample of ∼6,500 participants in 104 countries, AS traits predicted slightly higher social psychological skill. A second study with 400 participants suggested that heightened systemizing underlies this relationship. Our results indicate that AS traits relate positively to a form of social cognitive skill—predicting social psychological phenomena—and highlight the importance of distinguishing between divergent types of social cognition.

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