Monday, December 13, 2010

The Systemizing Quotient

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: In this post, I look at individual questions on Simon Baron-Cohen's Systemizing Quotient (SQ) and list all the factors I think they depend on. I notice a pattern among many of the questions requiring, not just having a certain cognitive style, but also possessing certain training, skill sets and interests --- usually training, skills and interests that are gendered masculine in Anglo-American culture.

Now that I've got a fairly detailed explanation of what "systemizing" is supposed to mean, I'd like to look at the way Simon Baron-Cohen and his colleagues at the Autism Research Centre have decided to measure it.

According to this article, the Systemizing Quotient is a self-report questionnaire that asks you to agree or disagree (either weakly or strongly) that a given statement describes you. The kinds of things you get asked about are mostly instances of systemizing behaviors or preferences in everyday life:
Initially, we had planned to devise the SQ so that it would tap into each of the domain-specific systems described above [i.e., natural systems, abstract systems, social systems, organizable systems, motoric systems and technical systems, of which examples of each are given and discussed in my earlier post]. However, this proved to be problematical because individuals who were well rounded but not necessarily good systemizers would end up scoring highly, whereas those who were highly systematic but only interested in one domain would receive a low score. Thus, we decided, instead, to use examples from everyday life in which systemizing could be used to varying degrees. The assumption is that a strong systemizer would be drawn to use their systemizing skills across the range of examples more often than a poor systemizer, and would consequently score higher on the SQ.
Okay! So, we're not testing your knowledge of, or interest in, various systemizing-heavy subjects --- no, this test is all about choices you make every day, and whether they show you to have systematic, rational, orderly and inquisitive habits of mind*.

If they're examples from everyday life, that should eliminate biases favoring 1) men and 2) more educated people, right?

Well, let's see what kind of examples he uses:

I am fascinated by how machines work.
When I buy an appliance, I do not read the instruction manual very carefully.
If I had a collection (e.g. CDs, coins, stamps), it would be highly organized.
I am not very meticulous when I carry out DIY.
When I lend someone money, I expect them to pay me back exactly what they owe me.
These seem pretty straightforward to me, and not necessarily dependent on one having a particular background or skill set. (A possible exception might be the instruction-manual one, which assumes one has the literacy, direction-following ability and diagram-reading skill necessary to understand most instruction manuals). The fascination by how machines work --- and many of its sister questions, like curiosity about how furniture/buildings were made, or how mountains were formed, or how wireless communication works --- indicates both a certain level of pure intellectual curiosity, and also a focus on particular kinds of questions: being more interested in how than, say, when or why or who.

The other questions --- about reading instructions carefully, having one's records alphabetized or keeping track of debts --- seem to be asking about diligence, or conscientiousness; not sure to what extent this trait overlaps with "systemizing," which seems to be an intellectual process rather than a personality trait. I guess if you are driven to understand and create systems, order in your personal life might be preferable to chaos, but there's also the trope of the absentminded professor, who might be able to come up with an equation describing just about any phenomenon you asked hir about, but who is also very disorganized and flighty. So I am not quite convinced that orderliness or conscientiousness has much to do with one's ability to make sense out of complex systems.

When I look at a building, I am curious about the precise way it was constructed.
When I look at a piece of furniture, I do not notice the details of how it was constructed.
When I listen to a piece of music, I always notice the way it's structured.
When I look at a painting, I do not usually think about the technique involved in making it.

These are also asking about attention to detail, and trying to break things down in your mind to see how they work and how they're put together --- plain intellectual curiosity, but on a practical level --- but it seems to me that they assume you have a certain kind of training or life experience that would make such details of construction, technique or composition intelligible to you.

Like, I might notice all sorts of tiny details about a chair, or a table, or a house --- such that I'd be able to draw it from memory after seeing it a few times --- for instance, I may notice the wood grain in different parts of a chair being oriented in different directions, but because I have no training in carpentry, this tells me little to nothing about how the chair was made. Some such details may well be invisible to me because I do not know to look for them.

Similarly, someone who's never painted might notice brushstrokes on a painting, but might not even know that's what they are, let alone whatever they might tell a connoisseur of art about what the artist did to make them look that way.

When I read the newspaper, I am drawn to tables of information, such as football league scores or stock market indices.

This one kind of depends on whether you care about sports or the stock market, doesn't it? They've also got a question like this about election results, but if you're also indifferent to politics, you must not be a very strong systemizer, I guess.

(Also, I have a bright and shiny No-Prize for the person who can tell me what gender people who care about sports scores and stock market indices are likeliest to be!)

I can easily visualize how the motorways in my region link up.
I find it difficult to learn my way around a new city.
I find it difficult to read and understand maps.
When travelling by train, I often wonder exactly how the rail networks are coordinated.
I am interested in knowing the path a river takes from its source to the sea.
While all of these certainly deal with systematic thinking, they also require you to be very good at visual and spatial thinking. (Two possible exception might be the train one and the river one, which only ask you to be *curious* about the layout of the rail network or river system, not to have a keen mental grasp of it --- but even there it assumes you've got the habit of making mental maps of things, which requires you to be halfway decent at map-reading and keeping track of the relative location of different things in space).

Is spatial cognition a part of systemizing? I don't know! None of the articles I've read on E-S theory addresses that explicitly. It's certainly possible to think systematically about one's position in space --- anticipating the trajectory of a moving target is a systematic process; you can even use math to do it! --- but I don't know if being good at manipulating maps, or 3-D representations of objects, or other spatial representations in your head is necessary for systematic thinking in general. They seem to bear about as much relation to each other, in my mind, as algebra and geometry. You can *use* algebra to solve some geometry problems, but being a poor geometer doesn't doom you to algebraic illiteracy. Indeed, many people are good at one but not the other.

In maths, I am intrigued by the rules and patterns governing numbers.
If there was a problem with the electrical wiring in my house, I'd be able to fix it myself.
When I learn a language, I become intrigued by its grammatical rules.
When I read something, I always notice whether it is grammatically correct.
When I'm in a plane, I do not think about the aerodynamics.
Okay, now all of these strike me as requiring quite a lot of prior training --- formal or informal. The most obvious one to me is the electrical-wiring one: yes, being able to solve problems like that by yourself does display impressive systemizing skills, but no matter how good a systemizer you are, if you have no training as an electrician you're probably not going to attempt that! Similarly, math --- especially math advanced enough for you to admire its beauty, and begin noticing rules and patterns (which for me didn't really happen until calculus) --- is a notoriously abstract subject, and while there are people who can grasp even complex mathematical concepts intuitively, without training, most people need to be taught that stuff. It's the same with grammar. We might *use* grammar unconsciously and spontaneously --- that's what Steven Pinker argues in his book The Language Instinct --- but we have to be taught to understand it. "Correct" grammar especially (something Pinker actually doesn't think exists) comes only from formal education.

Besides drawing on separate skill sets (whether arguably innate, like spatial cognition, or acquired, like mathematical ability, understanding of cars or computers, carpentry or electrical wiring), a lot of the examples in the Systemizing Quotient depict (stereo)typically masculine interests or pursuits.

I've already mentioned the tables of sports scores or stock-market indices, but even many of the examples of wondering "How does it work?" or "How was it put together?" skew masculine as well. Carpentry, for instance, is a skill much more likely to be possessed by men.

Some examples, from off the top of my head, of some very similar questions based in stereotypically feminine hobbies:
  • When I see a piece of beaded jewelry in a store, I try to visualize how it was made.
  • I can usually picture the steps it took to manufacture a given article of clothing.
  • When I go shopping for beads, I already have a design and color scheme in mind.
  • My outfits and makeup are usually highly color-coordinated.
  • When I'm cooking, if I find out partway through a recipe that I don't have one of the ingredients the recipe calls for, I can usually substitute something I have that will serve the same purpose as whatever I'm missing.
(Baron-Cohen does use a couple more typically feminine examples in the SQ: there's a question about cooking, and the painting one might be feminine and might be gender-neutral; I'm not sure about the gender ratio of people who dabble in painting).

Another thing that seems a bit stereotypical is this:
If I were buying a car, I would want to obtain specific information about its engine capacity.

Even putting aside the genderedness of interest in, and knowledge of, cars in modern American pop culture, the specific thing a good systemizer is supposed to ask about --- engine capacity --- seems to me to tap into culturally masculine values, like placing a premium on owning a high-performance vehicle even if you have no reason for needing a car with a particularly powerful engine. Why is it engine capacity that determines systemizing and not, say, fuel efficiency?

*Here is an interactive web form of the SQ, which I invite y'all to take and post your results in comments, along with your thoughts on whether the test gave an accurate picture of how "systematic" you are.


The Goldfish said...

I scored 52 and I'm neurotypical, as far as I know. My boyfriend scored 53 and he is the greatest "empathizer" I have ever met - it is as if he is able to read other people's minds.

Your posts on this are absolutely excellent!

Jess said...

Excellent critical review of the test questions. I have taken it before and had a major problem answering the questions too literally, especially the clearly masculine ones. I simply have a hard time answering yes to a question about liking sports scores even though I know it's designed to gauge how systematic I am. It feels like I am telling a lie which is hard for me to wrap my brain around. If the question were to reference say an ordered list of the latest knitting patterns by amount of sales, etc., then I could answer the question accurately because both parts of it would be true. The knitting part and the systemizing part. I'm glad you have pointed out these specific flaws in the test, now I won't feel bad about replacing the words "sports" with "knitting" and know that I will be answering accurately.

Anonymous said...

I got a very low systemizing score, but I'm not terribly sure it's accurate, as I work as a programmer and in everyday life I'm always analyzing things and trying to figure things out. But I tend to be more interested in things like how society functions or how people function or how my own brain functions rather than mechanical things per se.

Plus, a lot of the questions to me seemed to depend on someone being really observant of the world around them, but I tend to be lost in my daydreamy world a lot of the time. But I love to analyze fiction and pick out all the tropes I can find using the TVTropes wiki, which seems rather systemizing to me.

I don't think you can take it as a good measure of ability but rather of certain kinds of interests, and a lot of them stereotypically masculine interests at that.

Lindsay said...

@Jess Kahele, yes I had similar internal conflict over how to answer a lot of these, because while I often didn't do whatever *specific* thing he asked about, a lot of times I did something very like it in a different domain. I went with my literal-minded instincts and answered "no" --- maybe I should take it again and err on the side of "yes" for those questions and compare the results.

@The Goldfish, @sensitive little fuck - I got a pretty low score (29), considering I am 1) autistic, 2) a huge geek, 3) good at math, 4) a visual thinker, and 5) educated (if not actually working) in a STEM field. I think part of it has to do with the fact that I get lost easily and have no sense of direction --- lots of the questions seemed to deal with being able to orient oneself/having a good sense of where things are in space. I'm also really disorganized, and don't have many of the interests the thing asks about.

(I am very curious about how stuff works, but for the most part it is living, natural systems that fascinate me. I'm interested in *some* aspects of technical systems --- usually the physics involved --- and I tend to notice patterns and details, but don't usually *interpret* them to the degree that the test questions seem to assume. I'm also very interested in how society, people, and brains function, too, but there don't seem to be any questions reflecting that).

Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg said...

Wow, this is really interesting. I'm an extreme systemizer and an extreme empathizer. I think it's part of the patriarchal bias of the tests that these things are split up as though you can only have one and not the other. For me, they feel very interrelated.

I would probably score very low on the systemizing test, mainly because it's biased in terms of mechanical systems and being able to read maps, neither of which I'm very good at (or very interested in). But I am forever organizing anything I can get my hands on or wrap my mind around, seeing patterns all around me all the time, and focusing intently on how to see the order in a great many things that don't include cars or the stock market report.

These kinds of biases are part of the reason that I wasn't diagnosed till I was 50.

Sarah said...

Really great post. I once wrote a paper on this topic and had a lot of the same points. SBC irritates the shit out of me.

According to his test I'm not much of a systemizer despite being autistic. Largely because I am really not interested in most of the supposedly "systemizing" interests.

I am also severely directionally-challenged. Find my way around a new city easily? Ha, I have a hard enough time not getting lost in places where I've lived for a long time. I get easily mixed up, for instance, when I approach the same place from a different direction. To me it oftentimes looks like a different place from a different angle. Visual thinking is not my forte. In math class I aced statistics and some kinds of algebra while sucking at geometry.

I'm like you in that I can be absolutely fascinated by the way in which a grain of wood falls, or a pattern in a piece of furniture, but I don't think particularly about how the chair might have been constructed. Why would I, unless I were knowledgeable about carpentry? And given my poor motor skills, it's probably safest that I avoid carpentry. Which is also why I can't really answer the question about DIY projects very accurately. Because I can't and don't do DIY projects! SBC is claiming that high-systemizing is a paradigm for autism, but my autism-related impairments prevent me from being a systemizer in the way which he insists is the paradigm. Ironic, really.

mediamancer said...

I think that his focus on engine capacity, rather than fuel efficiency, is because almost everyone, even neurotypical drivers, might be concerned with "how much will this cost me?" But only a systemizer would care about the details of a car's propulsion system -- and if they care at all, they'll definitely need to know the engine capacity. It's part of the basic description of the engine. Similarly, a systemizer would describe a computer by not just the make and model, but also its CPU speed and hard disk size, the key performance parameters. For a man, these data would of course have phallic implications. But the data also relate to things like how much it cost, how great a deal it was, and how fabulously awesome a shopper you are -- a culturally feminine value. So to me this one question makes sense ... yet I do agree that the test as a whole is flawed. The test needs greater sensitivity to detect the feminine form of the 'extreme male brain', which, I'm guessing, would be more concerned with artistic and living patterns than with mechanical systems. But I wouldn't go so far as to call this defect a "patriarchal bias," since the solution here is simply to improve the test's reasoning, not trash it in favor of matriarchal intuition. A better test will help produce a stronger theory, which in turn will command greater patriarchal authority in the minds of obsessive scientific systemizers.

Anonymous said...

Nice post.
I have socred between 17-23 in SQ test.
My math skills are way above the average I have master's degreee in analytical chemistry with great deal of physical chemistry on the side (you probably know that advanced physical chemistry is not walk in the park for regular chemist but it was for me.).

I don't systemize through day. I do tasks or duty and have a curious questioning and inventive mind when I enter the process. It also translates to extreme pain with routine if you can not discover something new. They also say I have executive disorder because I want to invent to automatize processes and not do it over again. It is actually hilarious to see the need to put extraordinary people in boxes (it really doesn't whether the box matches with you).

Anyways I don't put much emphasis on world me and it lowers my scores drastically. I systemize concepts etc.

If you read Baron-Cohen book about this subject he puts social hierarchies and andavancing inside them as part of systemization. Interestingly this part of systemization is out of question when it comes to autism. Territorial aspects are absent.