Trade secrets from the autistic mind: How autistic people think, and what we can learn from them.
Homo Economicus (Economic Man) is a metaphorical creature proposed by economists as a theoretical model to study how we go about our business. Part human, part machine, he (or she, but let’s imagine him as a man for the moment, though we’re not doing men any favours here) always obeys the laws of traditional economic theory. Which is to say, Homo E is levelheaded in pursuit of wealth and reward, while paying as little for it as possible. He knows what things are worth, knows when he’s getting a bum deal, and makes decisions accordingly.
In regards to these choices, he’s also infinitely rational, i.e., rational without limits, a kind of Buzz Lightyear of rationality. When it comes to making economic decisions, he’s consistent, and consistently consistent. However, he can still be irrational outside of his purpose in life as a model for economic behaviour. The outcome of an economic decision may be irrational (e.g. buying a tub of ice cream when he’s trying to watch his weight), but he’ll always be rational in how he approaches that decision: he’ll look for the best deal on ice cream that meets his criteria.
But Homo E has taken a beating for over 40 years or so now. It all started with Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky back in the 70’s, era of high-wasted bell-bottoms and turtle neck sweaters. In their famous paper, Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision under Risk, they showed that we aren’t always rational in our choices. Since then, we’ve had a long line of Behavioural Economists and research psychologists who through innumerable experiments and studies - many of which seem to involve either a) gambling b) free chocolates, or c) questions about engineers, lawyers and feminist bank tellers - have confirmed and furthered Kahneman and Tversky’s original work. There’s no getting away from it, we’re often irrational, and in some circumstances, systematically and predictably irrational. While trying to maximise profit, we sometimes choose outcomes that are less profitable, or prefer loss over gain.
This of course goes against everything that Homo E stands for and how he’s supposed to act, so much so that he’s been shown up as a fictional creation with no basis in the reality of how humans actually behave. But … all humans?
To the best of our knowledge, around 1% of the world’s population is autistic. So you would think that if you’re looking into how all humans behave, then you need studies that include all humans. Just so that when we say “humans do X”, we’re moderately sure that we cover the largest number of actual humans as possible, and we don’t leave the 70 million or so autists unrepresented. In other words, we need studies that include people on the autistic spectrum.
There have been some such studies. Not many, and none involving any of the leading figures in the field of Behavioural Economics, but a handful all the same. I’ve covered some of these elsewhere here.
To take just one, this study on the influence of Framing on autistics found that:
“… individuals with ASD demonstrate a decreased susceptibility to framing, resulting in an unusual enhancement in logical consistency that is paradoxically more in line with the normative prescriptions of rationality at the core of the current economics theory”
(De Martino et al., 2008)
In other words, the autistic subjects behaved in a way that was less influenced by the framing effect and were more rational. i.e. they behaved more like Homo Economicus. Of course, this is only one study, but I’ve examined others here and the outcomes are much the same. In general, Autistics Don’t Do Heuristics: when it comes to choice and decision-making, people on the spectrum tend to behave rationally.
So, does Homo Economicus get a reprieve, living amongst us an autist?
Yes and no. As we saw, Homo E is infinitely rational. And while autistics are indeed more rational in many circumstances, we don’t know enough to say whether it’s the case in all. From what we can see, it’s likely to be true in any decisions that are context-based, involve social or group information, or rely on emotions - remembering that emotions inform our supposedly non-emotional and logical decision-making more often than we think. When it comes to being consistent in avoiding inconsistencies, autists usually do very well, certainly better than the non-autistic members of our species.
So let’s presume that in general, autistics resemble Homo Economicus in many of the situations where we might find him, even if not all. Let’s say mostly rational as opposed to infinitely rational.
So we have a new Homo, one who can serve as a stand-in for the metaphorical Homo Economicus in many circumstances, but unlike him, is a living breathing person, like Homo Sapiens. A kind of missing link between the two, with attributes of both.
Copyright © Peter Crosbie 2016. All Rights Reserved.
Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. (1979)
Benedetto De Martino, Neil A. Harrison, Steven Knafo, Geoff Bird and Raymond J. Dolan. (2008)