Monday, December 8, 2008

Autism, Suggestibility and Acculturation

Lili Marlene has an interesting post up about cults, wondering if autistics as a group might be less vulnerable to that sort of manipulation:
The thing that I think is interesting about this vile, vile man [Australian cult leader Ken Dyers] is that people described him with terms like "charismatic" etc, and obviously many people must have felt some form of attraction towards this man, who was apparently a paedophile many times over. So why did this guy leave me feeling as cold as a dead fish? Why do I feel that there is no way in the world that I would ever have viewed this man as anything but a self-serving arsehole? According to the results of various tests and questionnaires I have the psychology of a person who has Asperger syndrome. That is supposed to mean that I am socially blind; organically unable to tell a con artiste from a true friend. I'm supposed to have no sense at all when it comes to people. I'm supposed to be unable to understand the good and bad intentions of others. Then why did I find this man, and all of the many people of his type, to be basically yuckity-yuk-yuk? When I meet people like this I just can't get away from them fast enough, because I know, and I'm sure they know just as well, that we are just wasting each other's time, as we can get nothing that we need or desire from each other.
...
Am I just kidding myself that I'm so smart? Well, I've never been a member of any group that is anything like a cult. I've been an atheist since late in my religious childhood. But according to all the theories about AS and autism I'm supposed to be ripe for exploitation and as naive as a young child. Perhaps that is true of some autistic people, I don't know. According to the "extreme male brain" theory of autism, men are supposed to have less "social skills" than women, with autists possessing even less social sense than "normal" average males. Then I wonder how Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, who is the champion of this theory, would explain why it appeared that females greatly outnumbered males as members of this truly harmful and exploitative Australian cult? Shouldn't these very feminine-looking women with supposedly superior "mind-reading" abilities have had the inborn people-skills to read what was on this dirty old bastard's mind?
Catana pointed out in the comments, and I agree, that cult leaders target potential victims specifically, and "work" particular emotional angles --- we, the outside observers, do not see the same side of those people that their acolytes do. It's therefore misleading to compare our impressions of cult leaders from the glimpses we get on TV with their followers' experiences with them; they're putting on an act for the faithful that they don't bother to put on for the rest of us.

It wasn't cults that Lili's post inspired me to think about, though; it was broader, society-wide patterns of socialization. Social norms, it seems to me, propagate themselves by suggestion: people see other people acting a certain way and learn to act that way themselves, and to think it perfectly natural to act that way, and feel surprised and somewhat repulsed when they see a person doing otherwise. The more insular the group, often, the more outlandish the beliefs and behaviors that emerge (this is where cults and episodes of mass hysteria/mass delusion fit in --- these are not, in my view, exotic psychological phenomena but exaggerated instances of normal acculturation).

Autistic people are well-known for their resistance to socialization: we don't fit in (often, don't even try to fit in) as children; we don't fit gender roles; we don't follow the usual scripts for social encounters. Is this because we're not suggestible? Do ideas coming from other people not penetrate our minds and take hold subconsciously the way they do in most people? Or is it something else, perhaps our failure to imitate others?

Googling "autism and suggestibility" brought me two studies from 2007, both testing the susceptibility of autistic children to suggestion of false memories. The first study had 24 Aspie schoolchildren and 27 age-, sex- and IQ-matched NT children watch a scene involving two actors pretending to be visiting artists coming to photograph the children, then try to remember specific details about what had happened the next day. Their recall was tested several ways: first, by a "free recall," where the interviewer just sat there and let the children tell everything they remembered; next, the interviewer asked questions to jog their memories (both general questions like "What were [the visitors] wearing?" and specific ones like "When the woman had trouble with the [camera] tripod, what did she say?"); and, finally, the interviewers asked leading questions based on false assumptions (like, "What color was the man's scarf?" when he wasn't wearing a scarf) after briefing the children that it was OK to say they didn't know or to correct the interviewer if he or she got something wrong.

Where that study tested suggestibility in eyewitness memory, the second looked at autobiographical memory. This study had 30 children on the autism spectrum and 38 age-matched NT children split into two groups (a younger group with an average age of around 7, and an older group with an average age of 9) answer questions about events they experienced, first about events in their lives prior to participating in the experiment and then about an event (a magic show) put on by the researchers. An interviewer asked them, first, to tell her everything they remembered about the magic show, and then began to ask specific, leading questions, half of which contained false assumptions.

Both studies found that the autistic children were just as suggestible as their NT peers; their memories of events, whether merely witnessed or actually experienced directly, were equally likely to be influenced by leading questions. So it's not suggestibility per se that underlies the obliviousness to social cues that characterizes autism.

Given identical levels of suggestibility in autistics and NTs, I'm going to have to modify my theory a bit: it's not that we're resistant to suggestion in general, it's that we don't perceive as many things as suggestions as NTs do. Both of the above experiments featured very clear-cut scenarios: the interviewers were asking questions about actual events, and the wording of some of the questions introduced misleading details. This is a much more explicit interaction than many of those that constitute the ongoing process of becoming a fully socialized member of one's own culture. In those, the suggestions are often entirely unspoken urges to imitate certain people (and avoid certain others). There was a bit of confirming evidence for this hypothesis in the eyewitness-memory study: one of the elements in the short scene the actors pretending to be photographers performed was something the researchers termed a "socially salient sub-scene": the actors would be trying to use a tape measure, and the man would pretend to hurt his hand and get angry, and the woman would apologize, and ultimately they would abandon their tape-measuring project altogether, such was the anxiety it caused their characters. Now, when the children were asked to describe whatever came into their heads about the scene the next day, the NT children focused more on this sub-scene than on the "neutral" sub-scene, and in this preference they differed markedly from the AS children. The NTs' attention was drawn selectively to the social and emotional content of this scene, while to the AS children it was just another set of events.

I think this lack of selective attention to the social significance of events goes a long way toward explaining our relative resistance to socialization. It is not a complete resistance, as I've argued before with respect to gender, but it's enough to distinguish us.

By way of analogy, it might be interesting to compare how much the average autistic person remembers from school (or from recreational research!) with how much the average NT remembers. I find that I have retained a whole lot of knowledge from high school, while to a lot of people my age it's just a blur. If they remember high school, they're more likely to remember what their lives were like, who their friends and crushes were, and what they did on the weekends than what they learned in class. For me, it tends to be the other way around. I told my mom, when she marveled at how much I could recall, that it was only because I perceived so much less in high school that I remembered so many details: with fewer streams of data going in, you can devote more energy to retaining each one than if you were trying to attend to zillions of different channels at once, as most NTs do.

5 comments:

Lili Marlene said...

"The more insular the group, often, the more outlandish the beliefs and behaviors that emerge (this is where cults and episodes of mass hysteria/mass delusion fit in --- these are not, in my view, exotic psychological phenomena but exaggerated instances of normal acculturation)."

I'd agree with that.

Your idea about an autistic lack of selective attention to the social significance of events causing a lack of socialization sounds reasonable. Looking back at my life as far back as childhood, another explanation for my own lack of peer socialization is apparent. It seems to me that I never quite saw myself as the same type of creature and my "peers", and so I saw no reason why I should feel obliged to copy their behaviour just for the sake of being a member of their various clubs and groupings. My attitude has always been "Does this apply to ME?" But I don't remember knowingly breaking the rules imposed by teachers or parents - I don't think I was a naughty or defiant kid. The do-gooders can teach kids with AS all the tricks and skills of socializing that they like, they still can't change the fact that we are essentially different in many important ways.

thinkingdifference said...

not having any autistic experience, i have to confess there are many things i'm having a hard time understanding. for instance, the lack of selective attention to social significance of events; wouldn't it happen to say an immigrant child in a new cultural environment? when she would pay attention to other things than the 'norm' of the place?

on another note, your post made me think about my highschool life. i remember bits and pieces, things that were significant to me - you're right, everything i seem to remember starts from a selfish viewpoint.

Karen A. Scofield aka sari0009 said...

It's All About Education and Tools

Dysfunction and abuse, with their conditioning/indoctrination elements, cross all cultural, financial, and even neurological boundaries.

It's Behavioral

There are tools to spot dangerous potentials in cultures such as the educational Eight Stages of Genocide or Naomi Wolf's Ten Components of Closing an Open Society.

There is a well known and reliable tool for assessing religions written by someone I suspect of being on or near the autism range.

See http://www.neopagan.net/ABCDEF.html

For personal and political relationships, there are the Power Wheels and warning signs of an abuser to help educate about the paradigms of equality and abuse. See Section II, with its exploration of the Power Wheels and also see the later "warning signs (red flags)" of abuse section, both available at http://www.xanga.com/home.aspx?user=Sari0009&nextdate=11%2f1%2f2005+23%3a59%3a59.999

Tweaked only a little bit, the power wheels can also be used to evaluate political and cultural power paradigms in a similar manner.

The above tools are about behaviors and we're finally (!) grasping that it's behavioral rather than traditional identity based profiling that tells us who is a gem and who is potentially very dysfunctional/destructive.

http://www.xanga.com/home.aspx?user=Sari0009&nextdate=6%2f16%2f2007+23%3a59%3a59.999

On the more positive constructive side, learned empowerment (yes, I have a page on that too), learning EQ (emotional intelligence), and tools of change (there is even a book by that name) are for everyone.

Everyone has a blindspot, hence the Johari Window theory applies to all, NT and other.

Everyone, NT or on the autism range, needs an education in order to avoid harmful acculturation/indoctrination and to embrace healthy tools of developing EQ and of assessing their relationship to culture, religion, and individuals.

Unfortunately, The Forces of Good™ vs. The Forces of Evil™ dualism's roots are about 2,500 years old (started with Zororastrianism) and it's dualism-based conditioning that teaches people to view differences in what we believe or how we think as damage/wrong/damned or somehow suspect.

That affects artists, those somewhere other than absolute 0 on the Kinsey scale, pioneers in different fields, atheists, agnostics, people of different religions, "the infirm," and the neurologically diverse. (The latter is why I wrote http://www.xanga.com/sari0009/607813128/autism-as-wrong-disease-demonic.html)

That affects the small groups of thoughtful, committed citizens who always seem to be the ones to change the world.

Not to get so easily emotionally snared can help assessing behavioral patterns, red flags of abusers, power paradigm, and what's going on with numerous boundaries.

The bottom line is that being able to assess behavioral patterns and power paradigms requires an education no matter who you are.

Also, some people are better at detecting patterns and paradigms and it just so happens that many (not all) on the autism spectrum are those people.

I would suspect that pattern thinkers with an interest in history, psychology, and sociology or related fields would be among the least likely to be susceptible to dangerous cults or acculturation. Many on the autism spectrum are visual thinkers, yes, but some are also what I'd call pattern thinkers (I'm both) -- they can contemplate/create/tweak both the details and the entire pattern/system.

In comparison, perhaps 3 percent or less of the general population is able to do the same and most of them cannot do it to the same depth or breadth.

Also, I can't help but notice that pattern thinkers are among the most likely to join an orthopraxy (correct practice). Generally, orthpraxies put greater emphasis on how functional practices and people are while orthodoxies teach faith-based acculturation and identity.

The author of the aforementioned ABCDEF tool is definitely a visual and pattern thinker and not only belongs to an orthopraxy based religion but founded one (see adf.org).

Then again, some on or around the autism range cling to orthodoxy in a very needy way, viewing everything and everyone through the lens of their religion because they'd feel lost without that such rigid structured beliefs in the face of their limited ability to assess things human experience.

I would guess that there are fewer pattern thinkers in those autistics that cling to orthodoxy?

Karen A. Scofield said...

Not just a matter of autistic or not or religious or not...

People, cultures, and religions detrimental and dangerous tend to have certain behavioral commonalities. They tend to be:

* On the fanatic/far end of whatever spectrum.
* Ultra controlling of others, passively and/or aggressively.
* Intellectually rigid and frequently antagonistic towards adaptive/fluid intelligence, communication, systems, and roles. They usually rely on rigid roles, traditional or new. If they do exhibit tactical and other genius, they simultaneously suffer from massive failure of imagination as to what lies outside their paradigm of abusive Power and Control struggles.
* Purposefully ignorant, as it suits them.
* Prone to using whatever force and/or authority/manipulation in order to attain or maintain their abusive Power and Control paradigm.

Some went through more obvious and common religious/political/social/cultural/financial indoctrination and acculturation that contributed to their abusive condition.

The stories of racism, sexism, heterosexism, financialization, creedism, and domestic abusve all over the globe are good examples of the above.

Others, such as those in the Jonestown or abusive cults, underwent abusive dysfunctioanal indoctrination in smaller groups.

Yet others, like the VA Tech Shooter, arrived at their abusive condition as loners who didn't adjust socially and that somehow identifed with the few others who exhibited some of the same basic behaviors before and during their climatic fatal episodes.

However the abusive acculturation/indoctrination happens, that above list is still applicable.

Across the board, education (about logic errors, critical thinking, power paradigms, learned helplessness/abusiveness, learned empowerment, things EQ, etc.) is the one way to increase awareness of behavioral and cultural choices rather than accepting conditioning/beliefs/behaviors without question.

Such an education is sorely lacking from society, public school, and huge portions of college education/culture.

There are reasons for this that run deep and that affect us all in this culture and nearly all others.

Humanity has more commonly imagined strength through numbers united by identity, whether it's tribal identity, faith-based identity, cultural-identity, or what have you.

It takes more of a courageous thorough multi-disciplined approach to create egalitarian societies united by ability, demonstrable character, education, and choice rather than cultures based on beliefs, tribe/race, etc.

Cultures, probably because they can't imagine the demands involved, have historically usually feared learned empowerment and robust egalitarianism and pluralism unbinding too much too fast.

The education needed to turn more discerning adults capable of higher levels of intellectual and emotional autonomy is missing because most still believe that more rigid systems of cultural and/or religious indoctrination are safer and more powerful despite the fact that they keep on proving the most abusive, always trying to have the upper hand at other's expense.Not just a matter of autistic or not or religious or not...

People, cultures, and religions detrimental and dangerous tend to have certain behavioral commonalities. They tend to be:

* On the fanatic/far end of whatever spectrum.
* Ultra controlling of others, passively and/or aggressively.
* Intellectually rigid and frequently antagonistic towards adaptive/fluid intelligence, communication, systems, and roles. They usually rely on rigid roles, traditional or new. If they do exhibit tactical and other genius, they simultaneously suffer from massive failure of imagination as to what lies outside their paradigm of abusive Power and Control struggles.
* Purposefully ignorant, as it suits them.
* Prone to using whatever force and/or authority/manipulation in order to attain or maintain their abusive Power and Control paradigm.

Some went through more obvious and common religious/political/social/cultural/financial indoctrination and acculturation that contributed to their abusive condition.

The stories of racism, sexism, heterosexism, financialization, creedism, and domestic abusve all over the globe are good examples of the above.

Others, such as those in the Jonestown or abusive cults, underwent abusive dysfunctioanal indoctrination in smaller groups.

Yet others, like the VA Tech Shooter, arrived at their abusive condition as loners who didn't adjust socially and that somehow identifed with the few others who exhibited some of the same basic behaviors before and during their climatic fatal episodes.

However the abusive acculturation/indoctrination happens, that above list is still applicable.

Across the board, education (about logic errors, critical thinking, power paradigms, learned helplessness/abusiveness, learned empowerment, things EQ, etc.) is the one way to increase awareness of behavioral and cultural choices rather than accepting conditioning/beliefs/behaviors without question.

Such an education is sorely lacking from society, public school, and huge portions of college education/culture.

There are reasons for this that run deep and that affect us all in this culture and nearly all others.

Humanity has more commonly imagined strength through numbers united by identity, whether it's tribal identity, faith-based identity, cultural-identity, or what have you.

It takes more of a courageous thorough multi-disciplined approach to create egalitarian societies united by ability, demonstrable character, education, and choice rather than cultures based on beliefs, tribe/race, etc.

Cultures, probably because they can't imagine the demands involved, have historically usually feared learned empowerment and robust egalitarianism and pluralism unbinding too much too fast.

The education needed to turn more discerning adults capable of higher levels of intellectual and emotional autonomy is missing because most still believe that more rigid systems of cultural and/or religious indoctrination are safer and more powerful despite the fact that they keep on proving the most abusive, always trying to have the upper hand at other's expense.Not just a matter of autistic or not or religious or not...

People, cultures, and religions detrimental and dangerous tend to have certain behavioral commonalities. They tend to be:

* On the fanatic/far end of whatever spectrum.
* Ultra controlling of others, passively and/or aggressively.
* Intellectually rigid and frequently antagonistic towards adaptive/fluid intelligence, communication, systems, and roles. They usually rely on rigid roles, traditional or new. If they do exhibit tactical and other genius, they simultaneously suffer from massive failure of imagination as to what lies outside their paradigm of abusive Power and Control struggles.
* Purposefully ignorant, as it suits them.
* Prone to using whatever force and/or authority/manipulation in order to attain or maintain their abusive Power and Control paradigm.

Some went through more obvious and common religious/political/social/cultural/financial indoctrination and acculturation that contributed to their abusive condition.

The stories of racism, sexism, heterosexism, financialization, creedism, and domestic abusve all over the globe are good examples of the above.

Others, such as those in the Jonestown or abusive cults, underwent abusive dysfunctioanal indoctrination in smaller groups.

Yet others, like the VA Tech Shooter, arrived at their abusive condition as loners who didn't adjust socially and that somehow identifed with the few others who exhibited some of the same basic behaviors before and during their climatic fatal episodes.

However the abusive acculturation/indoctrination happens, that above list is still applicable.

Across the board, education (about logic errors, critical thinking, power paradigms, learned helplessness/abusiveness, learned empowerment, things EQ, etc.) is the one way to increase awareness of behavioral and cultural choices rather than accepting conditioning/beliefs/behaviors without question.

Such an education is sorely lacking from society, public school, and huge portions of college education/culture.

There are reasons for this that run deep and that affect us all in this culture and nearly all others.

Humanity has more commonly imagined strength through numbers united by identity, whether it's tribal identity, faith-based identity, cultural-identity, or what have you.

It takes more of a courageous thorough multi-disciplined approach to create egalitarian societies united by ability, demonstrable character, education, and choice rather than cultures based on beliefs, tribe/race, etc.

Cultures, probably because they can't imagine the demands involved, have historically usually feared learned empowerment and robust egalitarianism and pluralism unbinding too much too fast.

The education needed to turn more discerning adults capable of higher levels of intellectual and emotional autonomy is missing because most still believe that more rigid systems of cultural and/or religious indoctrination are safer and more powerful despite the fact that they keep on proving the most abusive, always trying to have the upper hand at other's expense.

Karen A. Scofield said...

Sorry about the repeating text in the last comment. Argh.