Digest

autistic traits and altruism; Google Glass; media reports of terrorism; and much more from our free Research Digest (see www.researchdigest.org.uk/blog)

Students with more autistic traits make fewer altruistic choices

Most people with autism have difficulties socialising and connecting with others. It’s generally agreed that part of this has to do with an impairment in taking other people’s perspective. More specifically, an emerging consensus suggests that autism is associated with having normal feelings for other people, but an impaired understanding of them. Little explored before now is how this affects the behaviour of people with autism towards others who need help.

Leila Jameel and her colleagues surveyed 573 students using the 50-item Autism-Spectrum Quotient, which is a questionnaire designed to tap key traits associated with autism spectrum disorder. Then they asked 27 of the top 10 per cent of scorers and 24 of the bottom 10 per cent to complete a new test of prosocial behaviour known as the Above and Beyond Task.

The participants read scenarios that conflicted another person’s needs with their own. They first stated how they would act in this scenario, and then they chose from three fixed alternatives, ranging from selfish, to medium prosocial, to high prosocial (or ‘above and beyond’). For example, one scenario involved seeing a man fall in the street while the participant was rushing to work for a meeting. After giving their own response as to how they would react, the three fixed options were: carry on walking; help him up and carry on walking; help him up and offer to take him to sit down on a nearby bench.
High scorers on the Autism-Spectrum Quotient more often chose the selfish, low prosocial options and less often chose the high prosocial options, as compared with low scorers on the questionnaire. The high scorers also gave more selfish open-ended answers when first asked how they would respond to each scenario.

Another measure was how satisfied the participants thought they would be with their chosen course of action, and how satisfied the needy person in the scenario would be. The high and low scorers on the Autism-Spectrum Quotient did not differ in their ratings of the needy person’s satisfaction with the different response options. However, the high scorers tended to say they personally would be more satisfied after making more selfish choices, and less satisfied after more altruistic choices.

This is a sensitive topic. If misinterpreted or oversimplified the findings risk bolstering the stigmatisation of people with autism. It’s important to realise that the study did not involve people diagnosed with autism, but rather a ‘sub-clinical population’ (in the researchers’ words) who scored highly on a self-report measure of autistic traits. Moreover, the study did not involve real-world helping behaviour. It was based on hypothetical scenarios, which raises problems of interpretation. For example, perhaps people with more autistic traits are simply more honest about how they would behave. Perhaps they find it difficult to, or choose not to, treat the fictional character as they would a real person.

With these caveats in mind, these results hint tentatively at how autistic traits could affect people’s helping behaviour in the real world. The researchers also said their new Above and Beyond Task could be used to measure the outcomes of training programmes designed to help people with autism. ‘Despite considerable attention to social skills training in people with Autism Spectrum Disorder,’ write Jameel and colleagues, ‘relatively little is known about the efficacy of such programmes or the key ingredients for success.’ cj


Your angry face makes you look stronger

In Evolution and Human Behavior

No matter where you travel, you are likely to have no problem recognising when someone is angry with you. From the plains of Russia to the beaches of Brazil, anger shows itself in a tell-tale facial display involving lowered brow, snarled nose, raised chin and thinned lips.

A popular view has it that, besides reliably conveying anger, this particular constellation of facial movements is arbitrary and serves no other function.

A team of evolutionary psychologists led by Aaron Sell disagree. They think the anger face also makes the angry person look stronger. This fits their ‘recalibration theory of anger’ that sees the emotion as an aggressive threat. An angry animal or person is communicating the costs that they will inflict on others if they do not get what they want. By making an angry person look stronger, so the theory goes, the facial expression gives weight to the threat of aggression, likely influencing the target’s judgment about the seriousness of the threat.

To test this, Sell and his colleagues created pairs of faces using a computer programme. They began with a 20-year-old male face, morphed from averages of many faces, and then calibrated it so that for each of the seven distinguishing features of anger (lowered brow, raised lips, raised mouth, widened nose, enlarged chin, lips thinned, lips pushed forward), they created a pair of contrasting faces. One face in each pair displayed one angry feature, the other face showed the opposite feature (e.g. one with lowered brows, one raised).

Thirty-five student participants then looked at the facial pairs and indicated in each case which face they thought looked stronger. The key finding? Each anger-related facial feature when displayed on its own attracted higher ratings of perceived strength. This implies each element of the anger expression contributes to making a person appear stronger.

Further experiments ruled out an alternative explanation – perhaps angry faces actually serve to make a person look older, and this leads to ratings of greater strength because observers assume a slightly older man is stronger than a 20-year-old. One way the researchers tested this wasto show participants pairs of morphed faces of a 60-year-old man, in which case looking older presumably wouldn’t be associated with greater strength. Three of the angry facial features actually led him to being rated as younger, with only two prompting ratings of being older. Moreover, participants rated the man as stronger when he displayed six of the seven angry facial features.

‘The current study is the first systematic test of the individual components of the anger expression,’ the researchers said. ‘And in so doing it confirms that these features are improbably well designed to solve the adaptive problem of bargaining with threats of force.’ cj


The simple piece of information that could dramatically increase your muscular endurance

In Psychology of Sport and Exercise

How most of us choose to behave is shaped powerfully
by the behaviour of others (or, more specifically, our perception of their behaviour). Psychologists call this the influence of ‘social norms’,
and its potency has been investigated extensively in the context of environmentally friendly behaviours like recycling, and health behaviours, such as binge drinking and frequency of exercise.
What if this same psychological lever could be exploited, not to encourage people to take up more physical activity, but to boost their athletic performance? A pair of researchers, Carly Priebe and Kevin Spink, have tested this idea for the first time.

Sixty-eight regulars (average age 40, nine men) at a pilates studio were asked to perform two plank exercises, and to hold each for as long as they possibly could. As a cover story, they were told that the purpose of the challenge was to help find out the average performance level for this exercise.

The plank is a physically demanding exercise that involves adopting a face-down prone position, then raising the body on forearms and toes, and holding this position rigid, parallel to the ground. It was emphasised to participants that they should hold the position for as long as possible on both attempts, and that their times would be averaged.

The participants were given a three-minute rest between each attempt. The key intervention is that between planks, half the participants were given the ‘social norms’ message that 80 per cent of people similar to them (in terms of age, gender and pilates level) had achieved a 20 per cent longer time on their second effort. The other participants were told nothing of this kind, or anything else (this is a potential weakness of the study, which I’ll return to).

The researchers had hoped their intervention, if successful, would lead merely to sustained performance on the second attempt. The rather dramatic result is that participants given the social norms message achieved a 5 per cent increase on their second attempt (first attempt average time was 95.82 seconds; second attempt average was 99.79 seconds). This is dramatic because after performing a first plank to exhaustion, one would typically expect participants’ second attempt to be shorter. The control participants, as expected, achieved a significantly shorter time on their second plank attempt (76.38 seconds vs. 90.09 seconds on their first attempt – a drop of 18 per cent).
Priebe and Spink said their findings ‘hint at the potency of the descriptive norm information and the potential effects of social influence on physical activity tasks’. Participants in the social norms condition reported higher ‘self-efficacy’ (belief in their own ability) than control participants, so this hints at a possible mechanism for the effect of the intervention.

A strength of this research is that the researchers gauged participants’ beliefs about other people’s performance before presenting them with the social norms message. The majority of participants assumed that most others would decline in performance on their second attempt. This was important to check because past research has shown that social norms interventions can backfire if people hold initial beliefs that exceed the reality of the normative message.

As hinted at earlier, a weakness of the study is the lack of a control condition that communicated a different message to the participants. This means we can’t tell how much of the apparent effect of the current intervention was specific to its social norms content. It’s possible receiving any kind of motivational message between exercises would have had a galvanising effect. Another problem, of course, is that the social norms message was a fabrication – the participants were effectively fed a lie. It’s also not clear how long this kind of intervention could sustain its effects. News of other people’s performance might be motivating at first, but could quickly lose its potency, or even become counter-productive. cj

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