Autistics Don’t Do Heuristics*

“We could expect that individuals with autism . . . would be less susceptible to reasoning biases.”

(The development of reasoning heuristics in autism and in typical development. Morsanyi, 2010)

Given the debate around human rationality in decision-making over the last 40+ years, you’d think that psychologists and Behavioural Economists would have been scrambling over each other to dig deeper into a statement like the one above. The phrase “less susceptible to reasoning biases” goes against much of what we’ve learnt about the inherent irrationality of human behaviour since Kahneman and Tversky started getting people to gamble on coin tosses in the 70’s.

In reality, as the above paper points out, research into autistic reasoning in this context is sparse. However, there have been some studies, and autistic subjects have been tested on their response to cognitive biases such as the framing effect (choice will be effected by how information is presented), the conjunction fallacy (we think that more detail makes an event more probable whereas the reverse is true), the base rate fallacy (we favour specific information over general information), and the sunk cost fallacy (we’re influenced by how much we’ve already invested even when that has no impact on outcomes).

Elsewhere on this site I look at the results of some of this research in more detail, but in general, what we see are outcomes such as:

“ASD subjects show a reduced susceptibility to the framing effect.”

(De Martino et al., 2008)


“The findings presented here suggest that the conjunction fallacy is less likely to occur with autistic participants.”  

(Morsanyi et al., 2009)

In other words, studies confirm the prediction of the paper quoted above: people on the autistic spectrum are less susceptible to reasoning biases.

Of course, the above cognitive fallacies concern our behaviour as individuals. But as social animals, we spend most of our time in groups, and just as individuals can be irrational, so can groups. Group fallacies include: groupthink (the tendency for the group to suppress dissenting views) group shift (the tendency for individuals in a group to take more extreme positions than they would as individuals), and in-group and out-group biases (“us and them” behaviours). Not to mention various follow-the-leader, herding biases such as the bandwagon effect. As in the case of individual cognitive fallacies, these group behaviours can be useful, and certainly were in our evolutionary past. But equally, they can catch us out, leading to human catastrophes, business failure and political and military fiascos.

As far as I can see, specific studies on how autistics behave in terms of these group biases are non-existent. On the other hand, we do know quite a lot about how autistics behave in social situations generally, which I’ve explored further in Group Biases and Autism.

To resume what we see there: when it comes to groups, autistics have a Get Out Of Jail Free card. Not being able to find your place in the group can be hell at your cousin’s wedding, but it’s a real advantage when the group starts behaving like lemmings and heading for the nearest cliff. (My apologies to lemming-lovers, I know they get a bad rap, and have done ever since the perpetration of the lemming suicide myth by Waltz Disney back in the fifties. I had originally included a reference to sheep-like behaviour, but through following herdyshepherd1, I realised the error of my ways. It turns out that sheep are not actually sheep-like, and are selective and smart about who they follow.)

Whatever your species, including our own, before you participate in group behaviour you need to a) recognise the group and b) recognise that you’re a member of the group. Both of these can be tricky if not impossible for people on the spectrum. But if there’s no group, by definition, there are no group biases. QED. It’s an easy out for perennial outsiders such as autists.

Still, even autists sometimes find themselves in groups and social situations, and on such occasions they have another characteristic that helps get around these potentially irrational group behaviours: people on the spectrum tend not to engage in reputation management. That is, they’re not particularly concerned by what others think of them. Groupthink and various kinds of “preserve the status quo” behaviours work through group pressure, but this will only be effective if you’re concerned about maintaining your reputation and group status. But, as Bob Dylan said, “If you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose”, so in these group situations, autists are not necessarily going to toe the line, and will thus be less likely to get sucked into potentially destructive group behaviours.

Autists have a final trick up their ever-rational sleeves that helps maintain logical consistency:

“People with autism make more logical decisions because they are not as easily influenced by their internal sensations or ‘gut-feelings.”  

(Shah et al., 2016)

What this illustrates is that firstly, autists are more likely to be calm and less stressed in situations of uncertainty, and secondly, they’re better at avoiding the specific cognitive fallacies that are the result of following your heart rather than your head. These include the affect heuristic, visceral bias or any decision-making situation where we’re influenced by what we feel - which if truth be known, is most of the time. In other words, when it comes to problem-solving and uncertainty, what we find with people on the spectrum is less emotion, more logic.

To return to our main theme: there are a large number of heuristics and cognitive fallacies (175 and counting according to Wikipedia), and I’ve touched on some of them on this site. They play a major role in our lives, mostly for better, but sometimes for worse. Business Insider didn’t beat around the bush when they headlined an article:

58 cognitive biases that screw up everything we do.”

Whatever the actual number is, we can’t yet say for sure how autists are going to behave for each and every one. No doubt there will be some that they will fall for as much as anyone, especially those where contextual or social information play little or no role. But as we’ve seen above, when it comes to decision-making, autists are less influenced by individual biases, group behaviour and emotions. Taking all that into account, it’s safe to say that in general, people on the autistic spectrum are less susceptible to cognitive fallacies. In other words:

Autistics don’t do heuristics.

Copyright © Peter Crosbie 2016. All rights reserved.

* Explanations:

Heuristics are mental shortcuts that enable us to make close-enough decisions rapidly. If you look at the sky when deciding whether or not to take an umbrella, you’ve used a heuristic. It’s a lot quicker than poring over meteorological data, and most of the time will enable you to avoid getting wet. Most of the time. They’re a trade-off of accuracy for efficiency, so we accept the odd inaccuracy in return for being able to get through our days without being bogged down in decisions.

There’s plenty of information online re. heuristics and cognitive biases/fallacies, but this page is a decent starting point:

And to delve a bit deeper (still very accessible though):

Cognitive Bias Cheat Sheet.


The development of reasoning heuristics in autism and in typical development.

Morsanyi, Kinga Ella. (2010)

Explaining Enhanced Logical Consistency during Decision Making in Autism

Benedetto De Martino, Neil A. Harrison, Steven Knafo, Geoff Bird, and Raymond J. Dolan. (2008)

Heuristics and Biases in Autism: Less Biased But Not More Logical

Kinga Morsanyi, Simon Handley, Jonathan Evans. (2009)

Emotional decision-making in autism spectrum disorder.

Punit Shah, Caroline Catmur & Geoffrey Bird, (2016)

58 cognitive biases that screw up everything we do.

Gus Lubin and Shana Lebowitz. (2015)

Other references:

Diminished Social Motivation Negatively Impacts Reputation Management: Autism Spectrum Disorders as a Case in Point.

Coralie Chevallier, Catherine Molesworth, Francesca Happé.(2012)

Shows diminished reputation management in autistic children.

Social conformity and autism spectrum disorder: A child-friendly take on a classic study.

Abdul-Fattah Yafai, Diarmuid Verrier and Lisa Reidy. (2014)

Shows the resistance of autistic children to social pressure.

Insensitivity to social reputation in autism.

Keise Izuma, Kenji Matsumotob, Colin F. Camerera, and Ralph Adolphsa. (2011)

Shows people with autism were not influenced by the presence of an observer and don’t take into consideration what others think of them.