1. Smartphone tracking shows fear affects where youth spend time

    August 26, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Ohio State University press release:

    Youth spend less time in their neighborhoods if area residents have a high fear of crime, according to a new study that used smartphones to track kids’ whereabouts.

    Researchers found that adolescents aged 11 to 17 spent over an hour less each day on average in their neighborhoods if residents there were very fearful, compared to kids from areas perceived as being safer. Higher fear of crime was linked to high-poverty neighborhoods.

    This is the first study to use smartphone data to track a large, diverse sample of young people to determine where they spend their time, said Christopher Browning, lead author of the study and professor of sociology at The Ohio State University.

    “It is clear that kids who live in high-poverty areas are spending less time in their neighborhoods and that is linked to a collective fear of crime,” Browning said.

    “This has never been tested before with GPS data that tracks movements on a minute-by-minute basis.”

    Browning presented the research Aug. 14 in Montreal at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association.

    This preliminary data is from the Adolescent Health and Development in Context study, which Browning leads. The study is examining the lives of 1,402 representative youths living in 184 neighborhoods in Franklin County, Ohio. This includes the city of Columbus and its suburbs.

    In this study, which was conducted April 2014 to July 2016, participating adolescents were given a smartphone that they kept with them for one week. The GPS function on the phone reported their location every 30 seconds.

    Overall, results showed youth spent an average of 52 percent of their waking time each day at home, 13 percent in their neighborhoods, and 35 percent outside of their neighborhoods. About 27 percent of the time when they were not at home while awake, they were in their neighborhoods.

    All caregivers of youth in the study were asked to rate how afraid they were to walk in their neighborhood.

    Results showed that caregivers’ ratings were only weakly connected to how much time their own children spent in the neighborhood. But the collective fear ratings of all the caregivers who lived in or regularly visited a neighborhood was strongly linked to the amount of time kids spent close to home.

    “Once enough people stop spending time in a neighborhood because they are afraid, others will withdraw, whether they are afraid or not,” Browning said.

    “If teens go to the local playground and there’s no one to play pickup basketball with, they will go outside the neighborhood to find their friends, or spend more time at home.”

    The study looked at whether the presence or absence of amenities like schools, community centers and stores could explain why youth in high-poverty neighborhoods spent less time there. But this factor explained little when compared to the collective fear of crime.

    “Many cities have social services like recreation centers that are targeted for disadvantaged neighborhoods,” Browning said.

    “But our results suggest these amenities may be underutilized because young people are withdrawing from the neighborhood. Whether they are afraid to go there or just following their friends elsewhere, young people spend less time in disadvantaged neighborhoods.”

    Upcoming studies using this same data set will examine whether kids in disadvantaged neighborhoods spend their extra time at home, or outside of their area.


  2. Study links low heart rate to higher incidence of stalking behaviours in men

    May 20, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Sam Houston State University press release:

    A low resting heart rate, which has been linked to aggression and violent offending, has been implicated in stalking behavior in males, according to a recent study.

    “Low Resting Heart Rate and Stalking Perpetration,” by Danielle Boisvert, Jessica Wells, Todd Armstrong, Richard H. Lewis, Matthias Woeckener and Matt Nobles, is the first study to incorporate the biological factor of resting heart rate in assessing stalking behaviors and is among a growing body of literature linking autonomic nervous system functions to antisocial behavior.

    The study found that males with a low resting heart rate were at significantly greater risk of engaging in stalking behavior. Based on arousal theory, those with low levels of arousal are less fearful, more likely to seek opportunities to pursue victims to feel stimulated, and are more likely to exhibit impulsive behaviors.

    “Participants whose heart rate was one standard deviation below the mean or lower had nearly three times the odds of having engaged in stalking as compared with all other participants, suggesting that low resting heart rate is associated with increased prevalence of stalking behavior,” said Boisvert. “Overall, our findings suggest that while heart rate is generally found to be associated with aggression and antisocial behavior across the sexes, these associations may be sex specific when discussing stalking perpetration.”

    Recent estimates suggest that 16.2 percent of women and 5.2 percent of men in the U.S. have been stalked at some point in their lifetime, which represents 20 million women and six million men. Stalking can lead to significant psychological, social and economic effects for victims, costing an estimated $342 million in the U.S. annually.

    The study is based 384 college students from a Southern university who answered a survey on stalking measures and had their heart rate monitored through a finger pulse oximeter. Participants were asked if they followed, watched or spied on someone; or tried to communicate through a variety of written and physical methods with someone against their will over the last year. Of the sample, 32 had engaged in these stalking behaviors, including 15 females and 17 males.


  3. Study suggests eyewitness confidence may predict accuracy of identifications

    April 16, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Association for Psychological Science press release:

    Many individuals have been falsely accused of a crime based, at least in part, on confident eyewitness identifications, a fact that has bred distrust of eyewitness confidence in the U.S. legal system. But a new report challenges the perception that eyewitness memory is inherently fallible, finding that eyewitness confidence can reliably indicate the accuracy of an identification made under certain, “pristine” conditions.

    Psychological scientists John T. Wixted (University of California, San Diego) and Gary L. Wells (Iowa State University), leading researchers in the field of eyewitness memory, joined forces in authoring the report, taking an in-depth look at the available science on eyewitness identifications. Based on their comprehensive analysis, Wixted and Wells conclude that recent advancements in identification procedures warrant reconsideration of the role that eyewitness confidence can play in the legal system.

    “The purpose of our article is to explain why a blanket disregard for eyewitness confidence is not only at odds with what has been learned in recent years but can also contribute to both the wrongful conviction of innocent suspects and the unwarranted removal from suspicion of a guilty suspect,” the researchers write.

    The report is accompanied by commentaries from several notable experts, including Senior Circuit Judge Andre M. Davis of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, and renowned memory researcher Elizabeth F. Loftus of the University of California, Irvine. The report and commentaries are published together in Psychological Science in the Public Interest (PSPI), a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

    The one factor that matters most in interpreting an eyewitness statement of confidence is timing, Wixted and Wells find. Confidence is only informative at the time that eyewitnesses first make their identification, before they are exposed to various influences that can compromise memory. This is often where courts have erred, the PSPI authors note, allowing witnesses to make confidence statements “at pretrial hearings or at trial, well after the witness might have undergone serious confidence inflation from repeated identifications, coaching, confirmatory feedback, and so on.”

    In addition to timing, accumulated evidence suggests several other procedures that can enhance the reliability of eyewitness identifications. Wixted and Wells provide five recommendations for ensuring these “pristine conditions,” such as including only one suspect in a lineup and ensuring that the person administering the lineup does not know who the suspect is.

    Data suggest that when these pristine conditions are followed, a high-confidence identification implies a high-accuracy identification. When eyewitnesses express low confidence in their identifications, however, the conditions do not matter — low confidence always signifies a high risk of error.

    “Instead of being ignored, an initial expression of low confidence should take center stage — overshadowing all other considerations — when a jury’s goal is to evaluate the reliability of a suspect ID,” Wixted and Wells explain.

    Jurisdictions in the United States are increasingly adopting these kinds of evidence-based eyewitness identification procedures, and yet improvements remain needed. In their commentary, Loftus and co-author Rachel Greenspan (University of California, Irvine) report findings showing that some of the pristine conditions are commonly used by US law enforcement agencies, while others are not. This reality raises the question of what conclusions can be drawn in the many instances when conditions are not pristine.

    To this point, commentary authors Laura Mickes (Royal Holloway, University of London), Steven E. Clark (University of California, Riverside), and Scott D. Gronlund (University of Oklahoma) present evidence from Wixted and Wells’s analyses showing that confidence can indicate accuracy even when the identification conditions are not pristine — thus, for a jury assessing the accuracy of an identification, knowing how confident the eyewitness was may be more useful than knowing whether she made the identification under pristine conditions.

    With these issues in mind, Loftus and Greenspan note that “it is important to emphasize that Wixted and Wells have called to our attention important new findings, significant reanalyses of earlier findings, and provoked a hugely important societal conversation.”

    As Judge Davis concludes, “one can be hopeful that this latest contribution to the ever growing literature will further the ultimate goal of our criminal justice system: to assure, as much as humanly possible, the exoneration of the innocent, while achieving, fairly and transparently, the conviction of the guilty.”


  4. Study links self-harm to violence towards others

    April 14, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Karolinska Institute press release:

    There is a link between self-harm and the risk of violent criminality, according to a Swedish registry study carried out by researchers at Karolinska Institutet and published in the scientific journal JAMA Psychiatry.

    Deliberate self-harm, such as cutting, burning or overdosing on drugs to escape distressing emotions or attempt suicide is a serious and common behaviour.

    It has long been suspected that individuals who self-harm may also be prone to aggressive behaviours towards others, but the studies that have been conducted thus far have not been able to give conclusive answers. Researchers at Karolinska Institutet have therefore used Swedish registries to investigate the link between deliberate self-harm and violent crime convictions. The registries give unique opportunities to study this correlation since they cover the entire population.

    The study included all Swedish citizens born between 1982 and 1998 and followed them from age 15 (1,850,525 individuals in total). During the study period 55,185 received self-harm associated clinical care, 66,561 were convicted of a violent crime, and 8,155 were both exposed to self-harm and convicted of a violent crime. Individuals who had at some time received clinical care for self-harm ran a five-fold risk of being convicted for a violent crime compared with those who had never received care for self-harm.

    A susceptibility to self-harm seems to increase the risk of violent expression, but we found no support for the hypothesis that self-harm causes violent crime,” says Hanna Sahlin, doctoral student at the Department of Clinical Neuroscience at Karolinska Institutet. “When we reversed the analysis and examined the risk of self-harm in individuals convicted of a violent crime, we found a similar association. Taken together, this suggests that self-harm behaviour and violent criminality is a manifestation of a common underlying vulnerability.”

    Almost as many men as women received clinical care for self-harm during the study period. The risk of violent crime conviction was particularly high for self-harming women with comorbid substance abuse, with a seven times increased risk for violent crime conviction, compared to women who had never received clinical care for self-harm.

    Even after controlling for relevant confounders, such as psychiatric co-morbidity and socioeconomic factors, self-harm was still associated with a doubled risk of violent crime conviction, a finding that remained when men and women were analysed separately.

    “We need to ask about aggressive behaviour towards others when we assess and treat self-harming individuals, but we also need to ask about self-harm when we assess and treat aggressive individuals,” says Ms Sahlin.

    The study was financed by the Swedish Research Council, the Marcus and Amalia Wallenberg Memorial Foundation, Forte, Stockholm County Council and Karolinska Institutet.


  5. Shooting, gang violence exposure leads to PTSD

    December 13, 2016 by Ashley

    From the Northwestern University media release:

    memory vanishingThe violence that women in disadvantaged neighborhoods experience and witness can result in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms and full diagnoses, according to a new Northwestern Medicine study that examined a disadvantaged Chicago neighborhood.

    Also noteworthy, women with PTSD diagnosis or sub-threshold PTSD had significantly more severe depression symptoms than women in the study who didn’t report experiencing trauma. Every woman who was recruited had symptoms of depression.

    “There are many women who are affected by shooting and gang violence in these neighborhoods,” said first author Sunghyun Hong, a research assistant at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “These women are often overlooked. With this study, we were able to shine a light on this high prevalence of trauma exposure and PTSD diagnosis among the underserved population.”

    This is one of very few studies to explicitly examine the impact that living in a disadvantaged neighborhood has on PTSD symptoms. The study was published Dec. 7 in the Journal of Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities (pdf of study available for free download at this link).

    The traumatic experiences reported in the study were often violent or sexual in nature. One woman disclosed having witnessed the fatal shooting of her son, and another woman reported watching her father be murdered in her home.

    The neighborhood from which women in the study were recruited ranked 7th for property crime, 26th for quality of life crime and 35th for violent crime among 77 Chicago neighborhoods.

    Thirty-six percent of women in the study had PTSD or sub-threshold PTSD (substantial trauma symptoms that might not have met the full PTSD diagnostic criteria). Those with PTSD had more severe depression symptoms than other women in the study who did not exhibit signs of PTSD, said principal investigator and senior author Inger Burnett-Zeigler, clinical psychologist and assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Feinberg.

    “Even if you don’t meet the full criteria for PTSD, you can have enough symptoms to impact your well-being,” Burnett-Zeigler said. “There is a substantial proportion of people who fall below the PTSD diagnosis line who might be getting lost in the cracks. It’s important for mental health providers to develop a greater awareness around this because untreated PTSD symptoms affect mental health, quality of life and functioning.”

    A significant percentage of women in a general population who experienced trauma (20 percent) develop PTSD she said.

    “But the prevalence of PTSD symptoms is particularly acute in impoverished neighborhoods,” Burnett-Zeigler said. “In the study’s sample, 71 percent of the women who experienced trauma had PTSD symptoms.”

    “This wasn’t a sample we recruited based on having traumatic experiences, and yet so many women we recruited had experienced something traumatic,” Burnett-Zeigler said. “That is really significant in terms of how prevalent of an issue this is in that vulnerable population.


  6. Game theory research reveals fragility of common resources

    September 29, 2016 by Ashley

    From the Purdue University media release:

    gambling toolsNew research in game theory shows that people are naturally predisposed to over-use “common-pool resources” such as transportation systems and fisheries even if it risks failure of the system, to the detriment of society as a whole.

    The ongoing research harnesses the Nash equilibrium, developed by Nobel laureate John Nash, whose life was chronicled in the film “A Beautiful Mind,” and also applies “prospect theory,” which describes how people make decisions when there is uncertainty and risk.

    The research could have implications for the management of engineered systems such as the power grid, communications systems, distribution systems, and online file sharing systems, along with natural systems such as fisheries.

    “We are surrounded by large-scale complex systems, and as engineers we are trying to figure out how to design systems to be more robust and secure,” said Shreyas Sundaram, an assistant professor in Purdue University’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “One aspect would be how you could engineer systems so that the incentives for people to use them are aligned with perhaps what’s best for society. As a government, what sorts of things can you do to make sure people use systems in a responsible manner?”

    Doctoral student Ashish Hota is leading the research, which is the focus of his thesis.

    “The main theoretical framework we are using is the language of game theory, which concerns the analysis of decision making by multiple individuals when the benefits of their decisions depend on what other people are doing,” Sundaram said. “At a Nash equilibrium, people selfishly select options that will yield the highest benefit for them, often to the detriment of their collective benefit.

    Findings are detailed in a research paper that appeared in the July issue of the game-theory journal Games and Economic Behavior.

    An example of a Nash equilibrium is illustrated in the so-called “prisoner’s dilemma,” where two robbers are caught by police and questioned independently. They would both benefit by agreeing ahead of time not to squeal on each other.

    The problem with this rational thinking is that if I know you are not going to rat me out, I stand to benefit more by ratting you out and optimizing my chances of getting away with it,” Sundaram said. “So the only Nash equilibrium is for both of you to rat each other out. If your accomplice is ratting you out there is no benefit in you not ratting him out because you are going to take more of the blame for the crime.”

    Understanding the behavior at the Nash equilibrium can be challenging when the outcomes are uncertain. Complicating matters is that different people have different risk preferences.

    In many applications, people decide how much of a resource to use, and they know that if they use a certain amount and if others use a certain amount they are going to get some return, but at the risk that the resource is going to fail,” he said.

    Sundaram and Hota have analyzed the Nash equilibrium when risk preferences are modeled according to prospect theory, a Nobel-prize winning theory that captures how humans make decisions in uncertain situations.

    The key is that you have to consider how people actually perceive wins and losses, and this is where prospect theory comes in,” Sundaram said. “Whereas classical models have not looked at how people actually evaluate gains and losses and probabilities, Ashish’s work has been looking at what happens at the Nash equilibrium when we incorporate these more complex risk preferences. We wanted to determine the failure probability, which we refer to as the fragility of the resource, as a function of the risk preferences of the users.”

    In a society that tightly controls the use of resources, failure is less likely.

    “This is why the notion of a Nash equilibrium ends up being key,” he said. “The Nash equilibrium captures the idea that nobody is forcing you to do the right thing. You are doing just what you want to do to optimize your own benefit. If, however, it’s a resource that is very carefully managed by a central authority, the failure probability is lower.”

    The researchers found that the resource has a higher likelihood of failure at the Nash equilibrium under prospect theory.

    “This means human beings will over-utilize their resources, compared to what is predicted by classical models of decision making,” Sundaram said.

    Furthermore, people have differing, or heterogeneous, aversions to losing. In free societies, where people can exercise decisions based on their differing loss aversion, total use of a common resource is higher than otherwise.

    The researchers also are studying how imposing taxes to incentivize human behavior impacts its likelihood of failure.

    Future work will include research to apply the approach to cybersecurity, probing how people make decisions under risk.

    “Similar reasoning can be applied to cybersecurity,” Hota said. “Understanding how people perceive security risks is critical toward designing more secure systems.”


  7. Study of fatal car accidents suggests medical marijuana may be helping curb opioid use

    September 17, 2016 by Ashley

    From the Columbia University Medical Center media release:

    marijuanaA study conducted at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health found that there were fewer drivers killed in car crashes who tested positive for opioids in states with medical marijuana laws than before the laws went into effect. The study is one of the first to assess the link between state medical marijuana laws and opioid use at the individual level. Findings will be published online in the American Journal of Public Health.

    Researchers analyzed 1999-2013 Fatality Analysis Reporting System data from 18 U.S. states that tested for alcohol and other drugs in at least 80 percent of drivers who died within one hour of crashing. They looked at opioid positivity among drivers ages 21 to 40 who crashed their cars in states with an operational medical marijuana law compared with drivers crashing in states before those laws went into effect. There was an overall reduction in opioid positivity for most states after implementation of an operational medical marijuana law.

    We would expect the adverse consequences of opioid use to decrease over time in states where medical marijuana use is legal, as individuals substitute marijuana for opioids in the treatment of severe or chronic pain,” explained June H. Kim, MPhil, a doctoral student in the Department of Epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health, and lead author.

    Among the 68,394 deceased drivers, approximately 42 percent were fatally injured in states that had an operational medical marijuana laws, 25 percent died in states before an operational law went into effect, and 33 percent died in states that had never passed a medical marijuana law.

    In 1996, California was the first state to pass a voter-initiated medical marijuana law. Since then, 22 additional states and the District of Columbia have enacted their own medical marijuana laws either by voter initiatives or through state legislation. “The trend may have been particularly strong among the age group surveyed because minimum age requirements restrict access to medical marijuana to patients age 21 and older, and most medical marijuana patients are younger than 45,” noted Kim. According to the authors, they would expect to see similar reductions in opioid use among older cohorts if medical marijuana is increasingly embraced by older generations.

    “This study is about the possible substitution relationship between marijuana and opioids. The toxicological testing data for fatally injured drivers lend some suggestive evidence that supports the substitution hypothesis in young adults, but not in older adults,“said Guohua Li, MD, DrPH, Mailman School professor of Epidemiology, the founding director of the Center for Injury Epidemiology and Prevention at Columbia, and senior author.

    “As states with these laws move toward legalizing marijuana more broadly for recreational purposes, future studies are needed to assess the impact these laws may have on opioid use,” noted Kim.


  8. Witnesses can catch criminals by smell: Human nose-witnesses identify criminals in a lineup of body odor

    June 10, 2016 by Ashley

    From the Frontiers media release:

    sad winter manMove over sniffer dogs, people who witnessed a crime are able to identify criminals by their smell. Police lineups normally rely on sight, but nose-witnesses can be just as reliable as eye-witnesses, new research published inFrontiers in Psychology has found.

    Police often use human eye-witnesses, and even ear-witnesses, in lineups but, to date, there have not been any human nose-witnesses;” explained Professor Mats Olsson, experimental psychologist at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden; “We wanted to see if humans can identify criminals by their body odor.”

    Dogs have been used to identify criminals through body odor identification in court, but it is commonly thought that the human sense of smell is inferior to that of other mammals. However, research shows that humans have the ability to distinguish individuals by their unique body odor. Our olfactory sense is often associated with emotional processing and is directly linked to the areas of the brain associated with emotion and memory; the hippocampus and the amygdala.

    To find out more about human odor memory following stressful events, Olsson and his team investigated how well we identify body odor in a forensic setup. In their first study, participants watched video clips of people committing violent crimes, accompanied by a body odor that they were told belonged to the perpetrator.

    They also watched neutral videos, with a similar setup. Then they identified the criminal’s body odor from a lineup of five different men’s odors, showing correct identification in almost 70% of cases. “It worked beyond my expectation;” explained Olsson; “Most interestingly — participants were far better at remembering and identifying the body odor involved in the emotional setting.”

    Olsson has tested the limits of our nose-witness ability. The team conducted the same experiment but varied the lineup size — three, five and eight body odors, and the time between observing the videos and undertaking the lineup — 15 minutes up to one week. In lineups of up to eight body odors, participants were still able to distinguish the criminal.

    The accuracy of their identification did reduce with the larger lineup size, which is in line with studies on eye and ear-witnesses. The results also show that the ability to distinguish the criminal’s body odor is significantly impaired if the lineup is conducted after one week of having smelt the offender’s body odor.

    There is ongoing research into how the memory of a crime scene can be affected by emotion. This is largely focused on visual memory as visual lineups are the common method of criminal identification.

    “Our work shows that we can distinguish a culprit’s body odor with some certainty;” concluded Olsson; “This could be useful in criminal cases where the victim was in close contact with the assailant but did not see them and so cannot visually identify them.”


  9. Exposure to violence during pregnancy increases risk of prematurity and low birthweight

    April 19, 2016 by Ashley

    From the University of Leicester media release:

    domestic violence abuseIn a recent paper published in the Journal of Development Economics, researchers Professor Marco Manacorda (Queen Mary University of London) and Dr Martin Foureaux Koppensteiner (University of Leicester) focused on evidence from the exposure of day-to-day violence in Brazil by analysing the birth outcomes of children whose mothers were exposed to local violence, as measured by homicide rates in small Brazilian municipalities and the neighbourhoods of the city of Fortaleza.

    The team estimated the effect of violence on birth outcomes by comparing mothers who were exposed to a homicide during pregnancy to otherwise similar mothers residing in the same area, who happened not to be exposed to homicides.

    The study found that birthweight falls significantly among newborns exposed to a homicide during pregnancy and the number of children classified as being low birthweight increases — and that the effects are concentrated on the first trimester of pregnancy, which is consistent with claims that stress-induced events matter most when occurring early in pregnancy.

    The study found:

    • One additional homicide in small municipalities during the first trimester leads to a reduction in birthweight of around 17g
    • Considering the birth weight classification, one extra homicide leads to an increase in the probability of low birthweight by 0.6 percentage points, an 8% increase compared to baseline
    • Results for the neighbourhoods of Fortaleza, where homicides are much more frequent, are considerably smaller (around 15% of the effects for small municipalities), which is consistent with the interpretation that violence is more stress inducing when they are rare
    • Because of the endemic levels of violence in Fortaleza, the team’s calculations show that homicides can account for 1% of the incidence of low birthweight and 3.5% of the incidence of very low birthweight.

    Dr Martin Foureaux Koppensteiner from the University of Leicester’s Department of Economics explained: “We provide evidence that these effects on birthweight are driven by prematurity rather than growth retardation of full lengths pregnancies, in line with evidence from the medical literature.

    “As the mothers examined in the study are likely to live in very similar environments, by exploiting the precise timing of the occurrence of homicides we are able to disentangle the causal effect of homicides from other correlated effects that may otherwise bias these estimates.

    This study used modelled data, which is one of the ways that we can predict causal relationships.

    “We also find that socio-economic factors, such as the mothers’ low level of education appear to amplify the adverse consequences of violence on birth outcomes, implying that violence compounds the disadvantage that newborns from low socio-economic status already suffer.”

    Professor Marco Manacorda added: “Our results have the potential to generalize to other settings where violence is endemic, as is true for many middle and low-income countries in Latin America and Africa. The results presented shed light on the additional cost of violence, largely ignored previously, in these countries.”

    The study was supported through a grant by the Inter-American Development Bank under the aegis of the programme ‘The Cost of Crime in Latin America and the Caribbean’.


  10. ‘I care for you,’ says the autistic moral brain

    March 31, 2016 by Ashley

    From the International School of Advanced Studies (SISSA) media release:

    autism lonely child“Autistic people are cold and feel no empathy.” True? It is a pervasive stereotype, but when analyzed through the lens of science, reality turns out to be quite different.

    According to a study at SISSA, carried out in collaboration with the University of Vienna, when autistic people are placed in “moral dilemma” situations, they show an empathic response similar to the general population. The myth of coldness in autism is likely due to the presence of the subclinical trait of alexithymia, which is often associated with autism, but is distinct and can be present in the general population, and is characterized by the inability to recognize one’s own, or others’ emotions. The study was published in the journal Scientific Reports.

    According to a Facebook post by a group called Families Against Autistic Shooters, “[Autistic people] are cold, calculating killing machines with no regard to human life.” The group was created in response to the collective hysteria provoked by yet another mass shooting in an American school last October, in this case by a 26-year-old boy who was later reported to be affected by autism. The social stigma towards people with autism remains strong — these individuals are often described as cold, antisocial, and disinterested in others, which only worsens their isolation.

    But is it actually true that a person with autism does not care about the suffering of others? “According to our studies, it is quite the opposite: the autistic trait is associated with a normal empathic concern for others and is actually associated with greater tendency to avoid causing harm to others,” says SISSA researcher, Indrajeet Patil, first author of a recently-published study in Scientific Reports. “The mistaken stereotype is most likely due to another personality construct, which is often found in the autistic population, but can also be found in those who are not afflicted, called alexithymia.”

    Autism is a neuropsychiatric disorder with a wide spectrum shared by individuals with varying degrees of cognitive skills (ranging from people with significant delays to those of above-average intelligence). Diagnostic criteria have changed over the decades (becoming more and more specific). Alexithymia, on the other hand, is a “subclinical” condition (as opposed to a disease), which can be found in the general as well as the autistic population (with an incidence rate of approximately 50% in the latter) and is characterized by an inability to understand one’s own emotions and the emotions of others. “For a long time, the alexithymia trait in patients was confused with autistic symptoms, but today we know that they are distinct,” says Giorgia Silani, former SISSA neuroscientist, now of the University of Vienna, who led the study. “In alexithymia, there is a lack of understanding emotions. In autism, however, we know that what is reduced is the theory of the mind, or the ability to attribute thoughts and mental states to others.”

    Moral Dilemmas

    In the study, Patil, Silani and colleagues subjected people with high-functioning autism (high IQ) to moral dilemmas. A moral dilemma is a hypothetical situation where a decision must be made which could save lives of some individuals by sacrificing others’. In the classic moral dilemma one must decide whether or not to voluntarily take an action that will cause the death of one person, and, in so doing, save a large number of others, or do nothing, which means not killing anyone directly, but resulting in the death of other people. A “purely” rational attitude encourages the voluntary action (utilitarian), but an “empathic” attitude prevents most people from choosing to kill voluntarily.

    The current investigation used advanced statistical modelling techniques to dissociated effect of autistic and alexithymic traits to see how they related to moral judgments. The results revealed that alexithymia is related to utilitarian choices on account of reduced empathic concern, while the autistic trait is linked to opposition to utilitarian choices due to increased personal distress. “Autism is associated with strong emotional stress in response to situations in which the individual tends to avoid performing harmful actions,” says Patil.

    The authors agree that tools for identifying and distinguishing between alexithymia and autistic disorders must be further enhanced. Their work, they add, is only an initial step in trying to define a model that can explain the complex relationship between various mutually-dependent personality traits and points to exciting new avenues for further research.