Autism, honesty and the capacity to deceive

Online magazine InCharacter has an article on what autism can tell us about honesty and deception, by autism researcher Prof Simon Baron-Cohen.

People with autism or related conditions are often poor at both deception and recognising deception in others. It’s not always the case, but it’s quite a common attribute.

Baron-Cohen’s article explores what we know about some of the differences in autistic thinking, and what might be so different that an effective understanding of deception becomes almost impossible.

He argues that a key skill is ‘meta-representation’, the ability to think about other thoughts, imaginary scenarios or abstract principles in yourself or others.

The key is that it’s not just thinking or imagining, it’s being able to think about thinking or imagining.

When this specifically involves thinking about what other people are thinking, understanding their perspective, it is often called ‘theory of mind‘.

You can see why this is a key skill in deception. You need to have a theory or understanding of what the other person is thinking or is likely to think, to work out how to hide the real state of the world from them.

As people with autism often perform poorly on tasks that test ‘theory of mind’ (despite some debate about whether the experiments are suitable) it has been suggested that a poor understanding of deception is a result of this difficulty.

Baron-Cohen’s article examines some of the research behind these ideas, but also looks at why the human race might have generally evolved to be good deceivers, with some notable exceptions in people who are nowadays likely to be diagnosed with autism.

In other autism news, Bad Science has been doing a fantastic job of tackling dodgy news stories that regularly hit the press, particularly a recent front-page Observer article that seemed to have little trouble deceiving people about autism research.

Link to InCharacter autism and deception article.
Link to Bad Science on another type of autism and deception story.

3 thoughts on “Autism, honesty and the capacity to deceive”

  1. That other Baron-Cohen, Sasha, has made a career of his uncanny ability to temporarily disable the theory of mind in others, like when he gets patrons in a country bar singing “throw the jew down the well”. In effect, he casts a spell of autism on his impromptu cast of characters, rendering them momentarily unable to recognize they are being played like a circus organ for the cameras.

  2. What about self deception? known as Cognitive Dissonance. Smokers who can convince themselves that smoking is not bad, alcoholic who can convince themselves they are OK, or workaholics who have no problem working excessive hours at the expense of their loved ones, or obese people , people so overweight they can barely walk, yet don’t think they have an eating/exercise problem.
    Then you have faith or beleif in something that can be deception(but not intentional deception), such as religious faith or (remember?)facilitade communication.
    people wanted to think they were helping the neurological impaired to communicate.
    Finally my most hated , psychiatry which claims to be helping people by jailing and treating their patient/prisoners with ECT and mind altering addictive drugs. With no proof of any physical illness.

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