Research reveals that adults with Aspergers (High-Functioning Autism) appear to have trouble using theory of mind to make moral judgments in certain situations. Specifically, the study found that Aspergers adults were more likely than neurotypical subjects to blame someone for accidentally causing harm to another person. This shows that the judgments of people with Aspergers rely more on the outcome of the incident than on an understanding of the person’s intentions.
For example, in one scenario, James and a friend are snowmobiling in an area known for loose snow. The friend asks James if he should take an easterly route around a row of pine trees. James has just read that avoiding the west slope is the safest way to go, and so he tells his friend that it should be O.K. to head east. The friend takes off in that direction and starts an avalanche which quickly overtakes him and buries him alive. In this scenario, the researchers found that Aspergers adults are more likely than neurotypicals to blame James for his friend’s death – even though James believed the slope was harmless.
Most kids develop theory-of-mind ability around age 4 or 5, which can be demonstrated experimentally with “false-belief” tests. For example, a youngster is shown two dolls, “Jane” and “Barbara.” The experimenter puts on a skit in which Jane puts a marble in a basket and then leaves the scene. While Jane is away, Barbara moves the marble from the basket to a box. The experimenter asks the child where Jane will look for the marble when she returns. Giving the correct answer (that Jane will look in the basket) requires an understanding that others have beliefs that may differ from our own knowledge of the world – and from reality. Previous studies have shown that kids with Aspergers develop this ability later than neurotypical kids.
Individuals with Aspergers often develop compensatory mechanisms to deal with their difficulties in understanding the thoughts of others. The details of these mechanisms are unknown, but they allow the person with Aspergers to function in society and to pass simple experimental tests (e.g., determining whether someone has committed a societal “faux pas”). However, the scenarios used in the study were constructed in a way that there is no easy way to compensate for impaired theory of mind. The researchers tested 13 ASD adults and 13 non-ASD adults on about 50 scenarios similar to the snowmobiling example above.
On researcher used the same hypothetical scenarios to test the moral judgments of a group of patients with damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPC), a part of the prefrontal cortex (where planning, decision-making, and other complex cognitive tasks occur). Those patients understand other people’s intentions, but they lack the emotional outrage that usually occurs in cases where someone tries (but fails) to harm someone else. For example, they would more easily forgive someone who offers mushrooms he believes to be poisonous to a friend, if the mushrooms turn out to be harmless.
While some ASD adults are unable to process mental-state information and understand that other people can have innocent intentions, the issue with VMPC patients is that they could understand information but did not respond emotionally to that information. Putting these two pieces together could help neuroscientists come up with a more thorough picture of how the brain constructs morality.
Previous studies have shown that theory of mind appears to be seated in a brain region called the right temporoparietal junction (TPJ). In ongoing studies, the researchers are studying whether ASD patients have irregular activity in the right TPJ while performing the moral judgment tasks used in the study.