People with autism-related disorders are less likely to make irrational decisions, and are less influenced by gut instincts, according to research funded by the Wellcome Trust. The study adds to the growing body of research implicating altered emotional processing in autism.
Decision-making is a complex process, involving both intuition and analysis: analysis involves computation and more "rational" thought, but is slower; intuition, by contrast, is much faster, but less accurate, relying on heuristics, or "gut instincts".
Previous studies have shown that our response to a problem depends on how the problem is posed - the so called "framing effect". A surgeon who tells a patient that there is an 80% chance of surviving an operation is more likely to gain consent than one who tells the patient there is a 20% chance of dying, even though statistically these mean the same thing.
Now, in a study published today in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers in Professor Ray Dolan's group at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at UCL (University College London) have used the framing effect to study decision-making in people with autism spectrum disorders (ASD).
According to the National Autistic Society, these disorders affect up to one in a hundred people in the UK. They range from mild conditions, such as Asperger syndrome, through to highly disabling conditions, such as Rett syndrome. Symptoms - which vary widely in severity - include language problems, poor social interaction and rigid patterns of behaviour and thinking.
Participants in the study performed a task involving deciding whether or not to gamble with a sum of money. For example, they would be given £50 and be presented with two options: option A was to keep £20; option B was to gamble, with a 40% chance of keeping the full £50 and a 60% chance of losing everything. This version was known as the "gain frame".
At other times, the participants would be presented with the "loss frame", the only difference being that option A was phrased in terms of losing money. In other words, when given £50, option A was to lose £30 of their initial amount; option B was the same as above.