This is important. Science says autism makes you better at understanding social psychology, because of an improved ability to systematize:
Social-cognitive skills can take different forms, from accurately predicting individuals’ intentions, emotions, and thoughts (person perception or folk psychology) to accurately predicting social phenomena more generally. Past research has linked autism spectrum (AS) traits to person perception deficits in the general population. We tested whether AS traits also predict poor accuracy in terms of predicting generalized social phenomena, assessed via participants’ accuracy at predicting social psychological phenomena (e.g., social loafing, social projection, group think). We found the opposite. In a sample of ∼6,500 participants in 104 countries, AS traits predicted slightly higher social psychological skill. A second study with 400 participants suggested that heightened systemizing underlies this relationship. Our results indicate that AS traits relate positively to a form of social cognitive skill—predicting social psychological phenomena—and highlight the importance of distinguishing between divergent types of social cognition.
The main idea:
Here we examine whether AS traits also predict deficits in an alternate type of social-cognitive skill, one we term “generalized social prediction.” Unlike person perception, generalized social prediction entails individuals’ accuracy at inferring overarching social phenomena (e.g., social loafing, misattribution, deindividuation, self-serving bias) and is reflected in people’s social schemas (6), theories about the social world (7), and assumptions about human nature (8). That is, while person perception involves predicting the emotions, thoughts, and intentions of other specific individuals in a given moment (9), generalized social prediction entails predicting the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of people in general. For instance, judging a specific individual as happy when she is surrounded by similar others given her facial, body language, and auditory cues (person perception) differs from predicting the social phenomenon of similarity attraction—that people, in general, are happy when interacting with similar others (generalized social prediction). And, on a broader level, judging the emotional state or intentions of specific individuals differs from accurately predicting humans’ generalized social behavior. Notably, the distinction between person perception and generalized social prediction echoes the evolution of the field of psychology itself. At its onset, psychologists attempted to predict the behavior of individuals (10); now, they attempt to predict overarching psychological phenomena.
The current results may even apply to the clinical domain. In study 1, participants likely to be diagnosed with ASD—participants who scored higher than the diagnostic cutoff point on the AQ-10—exhibited greater social psychological skill. This potential link likely only applies to individuals with ASD who have normal intelligence, however; individuals with lower-than-average intelligence would likely exhibit poor social psychological skill given the cognitive demands associated with this skill (11).
Our findings may also help explain why individuals with ASD exhibit adequate person perception performance in settings that allow for deliberation, reflection, and reasoning (e.g., extended time) (18). Individuals with ASD may be recruiting their knowledge of social psychological phenomena as a form of compensatory learning to understand other individuals’ mental states. For instance, consider discerning someone’s intentions. Individuals without ASD are able to automatically discern, for instance, that another individual shares their intentions via highly automatic social processes (e.g., social projection) (12). Those with ASD, however, are unable to automatically do so and, thus, may instead deliberately and systematically apply their social psychological skill to intuit others’ intentions. This interpretation aligns with a common strategy for clinical intervention in ASD, teaching social skills in terms of explicit social rules rather than mental state inference (19).
This study is exactly right. I’ve been saying for a long time that my having a clue in social situations depends a lot on knowledge of critical theory. Using pattern recognition to understand situations.