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People with autism more likely to 'follow their heads and not their hearts'

October 12, 2016

Scientists at King's College London have shown why people with autism are more logical in their decision-making and less susceptible to the so-called 'Framing Effect'compared to people who do not have the disorder.

The 'Framing Effect', described by the nobel-prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman in the 1980s, refers to the discovery that decisions are based on the way choices are framed. Kahneman and his colleagues showed that this was because people use their emotions when making decisions, hence some options appear more desirable than others, even when choices offer the same reward.

For example, when given £70 in a gambling scenario, people are more likely to gamble their money if they think they are going to 'Lose £50'than if they stand to 'Keep £20', even though both options are numerically equivalent. The thought of losing money creates a strong emotional response and people respond by doing something to prevent this from happening (i.e. by gambling their money).

Research has shown that emotional awareness is impaired in people with alexithymia, otherwise known as 'emotional blindness'. As'emotional blindness'is more common in people with autism, this could mean autistic individuals are less susceptible to the emotionally driven Framing Effect. Researchers also know that people with alexithymia have difficulties in detecting their own heartbeat, raising the possibility that following one's heartbeat may be linked to the Framing Effect.

In a new study, published today in Molecular Autism, people with and without autism were given a computerised task to measure their susceptibility to the Framing Effect. They were repeatedly given the opportunity to gamble in situations where they could either 'lose'or 'gain'money from an initial pot of money.

Participants were also asked to close their eyes and count their heartbeats in order to measure how well they perceived their internal sensations. Finally, emotional awareness was measured using a questionnaire.

People without autism were almost two times more likely to gamble in situations where they could lose money relative to when they could gain money. Although people with autism chose to gamble just as often as those in the non-autistic (control) group, there was little difference between gambling when they were going to lose or gain money.

Among people who did not have autism, those most 'in touch'with their internal sensations, and who also had good emotional awareness, were most susceptible to the Framing Effect. In contrast, susceptibility to the Framing Effect was less pronounced in people with autism because it was not driven by their perception of internal sensations or emotional awareness.

According to the study authors, this indicates that the two groups were using different strategies when making their decisions - people without autism were using their intuition, emotion and 'following their heart', while those with autism used a more rule-based rational strategy.

Punit Shah from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King's College London, said: 'Our study adds to evidence of atypical psychological processes in autism, but also highlights that the condition may carry benefits in situations where it may be useful to 'follow your head and not your heart.'

'It is often thought that people with autism are 'good with numbers'and therefore more rational, but this theory is not well understood. Our research helps to explain that people with autism make more logical decisions because they are not as easily influenced by their internal sensations or 'gut-feelings.'

The study also offers insights into why some people are more susceptible to the Framing Effect, many decades after the concept was discovered. Punit Shah added: 'Our study suggests that complex decisions are related to very basic biological processes such as the extent to which we feel our heartbeat.'
-end-
The research was supported by the Medical Research Council and The Baily Thomas Charitable Fund ("Interoception and Autism Spectrum Disorder").

Notes to editors

Paper reference: Shah, Catmur, & Bird (2016). Emotional decision-making in Autism Spectrum Disorder: The roles of interoception and alexithymia. Molecular Autism (Open Access). Once published, the article will go live at the following link: http://molecularautism.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13229-016-0104-x

For further media information or a copy of the research paper, please contact Jack Stonebridge, Press Officer, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, King's College London on jack.stonebridge@kcl.ac.uk/ 020 7848 5377 or 07718697176.

About King's College London - http://www.kcl.ac.uk

King's College London is one of the top 25 universities in the world (2016/17 QS World University Rankings) and among the oldest in England. King's has more than 26,500 students (of whom nearly 10,400 are graduate students) from some 150 countries worldwide, and nearly 6,900 staff. The university is in the second phase of a £1 billion redevelopment programme which is transforming its estate.

King's has an outstanding reputation for world-class teaching and cutting-edge research. In the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF) King's was ranked 6th nationally in the 'power'ranking, which takes into account both the quality and quantity of research activity, and 7th for quality according to Times Higher Education rankings. Eighty-four per cent of research at King's was deemed 'world-leading'or 'internationally excellent'(3* and 4*). The university is in the top seven UK universities for research earnings and has an overall annual income of more than £600 million.

King's has a particularly distinguished reputation in the humanities, law, the sciences (including a wide range of health areas such as psychiatry, medicine, nursing and dentistry) and social sciences including international affairs. It has played a major role in many of the advances that have shaped modern life, such as the discovery of the structure of DNA and research that led to the development of radio, television, mobile phones and radar.

King's College London and Guy's and St Thomas', King's College Hospital and South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trusts are part of King's Health Partners. King's Health Partners Academic Health Sciences Centre (AHSC) is a pioneering global collaboration between one of the world's leading research-led universities and three of London's most successful NHS Foundation Trusts, including leading teaching hospitals and comprehensive mental health services. For more information, visit: http://www.kingshealthpartners.org.

The Medical Research Council is at the forefront of scientific discovery to improve human health. Founded in 1913 to tackle tuberculosis, the MRC now invests taxpayers' money in some of the best medical research in the world across every area of health. Thirty-one MRC-funded researchers have won Nobel prizes in a wide range of disciplines, and MRC scientists have been behind such diverse discoveries as vitamins, the structure of DNA and the link between smoking and cancer, as well as achievements such as pioneering the use of randomised controlled trials, the invention of MRI scanning, and the development of a group of antibodies used in the making of some of the most successful drugs ever developed. Today, MRC-funded scientists tackle some of the greatest health problems facing humanity in the 21st century, from the rising tide of chronic diseases associated with ageing to the threats posed by rapidly mutating micro-organisms.http://www.mrc.ac.uk

King's College London

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