In which regards are autistics more rational?

Many bloggers are citing a recent Scientific American piece, one part of which covers how autistics come closer to satisfying some canons of economic rationality.  Since I discuss the underlying research in Create Your Own Economy, I should point out that the SA article doesn't quite get it right.  They serve up:

One group that does not value perceived losses differently than gains are individuals with autism…

I would sooner describe the underlying research as showing that framing effects are weaker (NB: not absent) for autistics.  That is, for the autistics it matters less whether a given change in endowment is described as a gain or a loss, relative to varying frames.  I read the SA account ("when balancing gains and losses") as conflating framing and endowment effects; in any case the exposition is not clear.

SA writes:

…this seeming rationality may itself denote abnormal behavior…

An alternative would have been: "The autistics are in this way more rational."

One underexplored question is whether most people distrust those who are not irrational in particular, commonly realized ways.  Even the researchers on the original piece considers the superior performance of autistics on the test to be a sign of their processing "failures."

Another part of the piece concerns the skin conductance responses; there is preliminary evidence that autistics approached the framed choices in a less emotional manner, at least by that one measure.  

Create Your Own Economy considers a number of possible overlaps between economics and autism, including Vernon Smith's claim that Adam Smith was himself on the autism spectrum.  It also considers other ways in which autistics are likely to be more rational, such as being less likely to encode false memories and less likely to resort to excessive use of narrative to organize their memories and explanations.

Comments

Is it irrational to have certain preferences or should preferences be taken as given by economists?

For instance, risk aversion (concave utility) doesn't seem to be considered irrational even though it doesn't maximize (monetary) wealth and income. How about altruism? Envy? Spite? Endowment effects? Framing effects? How about preferences that change over time or in response to new information?

What is the line that makes some preferences "irrational" but other preferences "rational"?

Where does Captain Spock fall on the autism spectrum?

Describing "framing effects" as "irrational" seems to me to be an instance
of the common problem of experimental psychologists not being as smart as
their subjects (or as having their intelligence degraded by too much misguided
instruction).

These experiments typically deal with highly artificial situations, in which
the subjects' responses are going to depend strongly on how they go about
pretending that this artificial situation is actually real. The way things
are framed as "losses" or "gains" can affect this. In particular, in most
real situations, the effects of a person's decision on their reputation is
very important. Winning $100 may not be good if the way you won it gives
you a reputation for recklessness, dishonesty, or something else bad. In
actual situations, we have lots of information on how our actions are going
to be percieved by other people. In an artificial situation, the phrases
used to describe the options may be the only indication of how (we pretend)
these actions are going to be perceived, and hence basing the decision on
this phrasing is far from being irrational.

So the "normal" people may not be acting irrationally. And the autistic
people may not be acting irrationally either, if they simply care less about
the opinions of other people. (Or the autistic people may be acting in an
irrational, or at least less perceptive, way if they do care, but don't
realize what the effects will be.)

The classic thought experiment: two choices: (1) you get $1000 and your neighbors
each get $2000, or (2) you get $500 and your neighbors get nothing. Anyone with
a modicum of understanding of human aspirations and need for status knows that
case 2 is preferable, even though it departs from the simplistic economic model.

Anyone with a modicum of understand of humans knows that choosing (2) is
understandable. Lots of evil actions are understandable, and many
are distressingly common. That doesn't make them right. Nor does it mean
that all humans do, or want to do, these actions.

Not taxing isn't the same as giving.

Dirk,

Many of us, psychologically deviant or not, fully understand envy, realize it is not optimal, don't like neighbors who act on it, and understand that using the government for zero-sum outcomes is an enormously wasteful, though widely rationalized and popular sport. That's all.

"One underexplored question is whether most people distrust those who are not irrational in particular, commonly realized ways. Even the researchers on the original piece considers the superior performance of autistics on the test to be a sign of their processing "failures.""
My experience would point towards yes.

The classic thought experiment: two choices: (1) you get $1000 and your neighbors each get $2000, or (2) you get $500 and your neighbors get nothing. Anyone with a modicum of understanding of human aspirations and need for status knows that case 2 is preferable, even though it departs from the simplistic economic model.

Yet libertarians and Asperger types don’t seem to understand this. And not only that, but they want social polices based on their idea that case 1 is preferable: i.e.low taxes for people with high incomes. Gosh, they say, if the rich do well, we’re all better off. Which misses the whole point of social policies in the first place. We’re not trying to increase GDP (as the economic models assume). We’re trying to increase overall well being. And status is incredibly important.

I am libertarian and high-functioning Aspie and can't imagine anyone preferring scenario 2 over 1. I guess I prove your point, whatever it is.

Dirk, it's not that we don't understand the idea that option 2 is preferable, it's that we reject it. Option 1 is both subjectively better because my absolute wealth is higher, it's objectively better because social wealth is higher. And while it's true that it's possible that some individuals would prefer to give up $500 of wealth to see $4000 taken away from others, that is not a preference that should be validated by the systems of society, because it is destructive.

Dirk,

Most of these posters are inadvertently making your point for you. They don't seem to get why many, maybe most, human beings instinctively prefer 2. And the comments about "envy" are very revealing about the way libertarians don't get it. We're not talking about envy here at all, we're talking about relative status. If I make my neighbor twice as rich as me I've given him a big competitive advantage in the mating game, and why would I do that? These examples are of course far too simplistic - if my neighbor is an 85 year old woman with no kids - I'll definitely take 1. If my neighbor is a dweeby guy who spends too much time posting on the internet, I may go for option 1 as well. But if my neighbor is my age and a little better looking than me - I'm definitely taking 2.

Dear God, surely you people realize that you were being trolled by Dirk. He's trying to make a point off the redistributionists. On the other hand, the fact that no-one seemed to cotton on says something about how people here view those who believe that there's a social good to flattening wealth differences...

*sigh*.

Tyler, I hope that your book does not say that Vernon Smith "claimed" that Adam Smith was himself on the autism spectrum. In his memoir he puts Adam forward as a "candidate."

That is the most depressingly pathetic criticism of libertarianiam from a liberal perspective that I have seen in quite some time. Perhaps that is the reason why some people are liberals. Let me assure you: there are much better reasons.

So should I amend my rule to not take investment advice from anyone under 70 years old to also take advice from Autistsics?

Vanya, I assume you're joking. A one-time $1000 difference isn't enough to signal with, even assuming it was spent on nothing but signaling.

One might be jealous of the people that they work with but not of their neighbors.

OK, to follow up on Dirk's challenge:

Yes, status matters when dealing with one's neighbors. But when I participate in the market I am in effect interacting with thousands or even millions of strangers. I haven't a clue who they are let alone what are the effects on their status relative to mine.

Also, I bought Tyler's book today. Happily, no unwarranted claims by Vernon Smith (or Tyler) about Adam Smith.

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