Sunday, December 12, 2010

What Is Systemizing?

I've already asked "What is empathy?" on this blog, and, now that I'm working on a series of posts talking about the empirical evidence that exists for Simon Baron-Cohen's "extreme male brain" theory of autism --- which says, briefly, that there are two important skill sets, empathizing (which is more common in female people) and systemizing (which is more common in male people) and that people with autism (whatever their sex or gender) are very poor empathizers and very good systemizers --- I figured I should probably discuss what "systemizing" is supposed to mean, since that question has come up before in comments here.

Baron-Cohen seems to go into the most detail about what exactly he means by "systemizing" in this article describing the construction and testing of a "Systemizing Quotient" questionnaire he and his team devised:

Systemizing is the drive to analyse the variables in a system, to derive the underlying rules that govern the behaviour of a system. Systemizing also refers to the drive to construct systems. Systemizing allows you to predict the behaviour of a system, and to control it. A growing body of evidence suggests that, on average, males spontaneously systemize to a greater degree than do females.

A system is defined as something that takes inputs, which can be operated on in variable ways, to deliver different outputs in a rule-governed way. There are at least six kinds of system: Technical, Natural, Abstract, Social, Organizable, Motoric, but all these share the same underlying process which is monitored closely during


Below, an example from each of the six types of system are given:

A. An example of a technical system: a sail
Sail.........Angle 10°......Speed slow
Sail.........Angle 30°..... Speed medium
Sail.........Angle 60°..... Speed fast

B. An example of a natural system: a plant
Rhododendron....Mildly alkaline soil ........Light blue petals
Rhododendron....Strongly alkaline soil......Dark blue petals
Rhododendron....Acidic soil..................Pink petals
[EDIT 5/13/2011: Commenter meren points out that the different petal colors in response to soil pH --- blue and pink --- is a characteristic of hydrangeas, not rhododendron.]

C. An example of an abstract system: mathematics

D. An example of a social system: a constituency boundary
New York....Inner city........Small number of voters
New York....Whole city......Medium number of voters
New York....Whole state.....Large number of voters

E. An example of an organizable system: a CD collection
CD collection ....Alphabetical.........Order on shelf: A-Z
CD collection.....Date of release.....Order on shelf: 1980-2000
CD collection.....Genre................Order on shelf: classical --> pop

F: An example of a motoric system: a tennis stroke
Hit ball.....Top spin........Ball bounces left
Hit ball.....Back spin.......Ball bounces right
Hit ball.....No spin.........Ball bounces forward

Some of these examples confused me --- how are different geographical entities bearing the same name operations, exactly? I always thought an "operation" was something you do to an input, like squaring, multiplying, dividing, or whatever. Some of these examples have the "operation" be something I would classify as an "input," like the different types of soil for the rhododendron. (Furthermore, what gardener thinks of a rhododendron as a black box into which a certain type of soil goes, and out of which a certain color of flower comes? Most gardeners know a lot more about what is going on inside their plants than that!)

Anyway, here are some alternate examples of each of the type of systems, from a different article:

(1) Technical systems: a computer, a musical instrument, a hammer, etc.
(2) Natural systems: a tide, a weather front, a plant, etc.
(3) Abstract systems: mathematics, a computer program, syntax, etc.
(4) Social systems: a political election, a legal system, a business, etc.
(5) Organisable systems: a taxonomy, a collection, a library, etc.
(6) Motoric systems: a sports technique, a performance, a technique for playing a musical instrument, etc.

(Social systems were the ones that confused me the most, since I couldn't tell if he was talking large-scale --- like you might use sociology, political science or some theory of history to understand --- or small-scale --- interactions between individual people that follow a pattern, that you might use psychology or etiquette to understand, or at least successfully navigate. The second series of examples persuades me that he means the former category of social system).

The first article also addresses the second type of "social system" I envisioned, claiming that social interactions cannot be understood systematically:

[T]he process in systemizing is always the same. One of the three elements (usually the input) is treated as a fixed feature (i.e. it is held constant), while another of the three elements (usually the operation) is treated as a variable (i.e. it can vary: think of a dimmer on a light switch). Merely observing the consequences of those two elements delivers to you important information: the output changes from Output 1, to Output 2, to Output 3. That is, you learn about the system. Systemizing works for phenomena that are indeed ultimately lawful, finite and deterministic. Note that the other way we systemize is when we are confronted by various outputs, and try to infer backwards from the output as to what the operation is that produces this particular output.

Systemizing is practically useless for predicting the moment-by-moment changes in a person's behaviour. To predict human behaviour, empathizing is required. Systemizing and empathizing are very different kinds of processes. Empathizing involves attributing mental states to others, and responding with an appropriate affect to the other's affective state. Empathizing covers not only what is sometimes called "theory of mind" or "mentalizing" (Morton et al. 1991), but also what is covered by the English words "empathy" and "sympathy."

In order to see why you cannot systemize a person's behaviour with much predictive power, consider the next example:


Why does the same input (Jane) have such different outputs (behaviour) when the same operation (her birthday) is repeated? Someone who relies on systemizing to predict people's behaviour would have to conclude that people are not clearly rule-governed. This is a correct conclusion, but there is nevertheless an alternative way of predicting and making sense of Jane's behaviour: via empathizing. During empathizing, the focus is on the person's mental state (including his or her emotion). ... [D]uring empathizing, the observer does not expect lawful relationships between the person's mental state and his or her behaviour. The observer only expects that the person's mental state will at least constrain their behaviour.

In other words, a person might respond quite differently to the exact same set of conditions at different times, depending on how they're feeling, what's been going on in their lives etc. You need access to this information --- not just how they've responded to a given set of conditions in the past --- to make sense of their responses.

Baron-Cohen, S. (2002). The extreme male brain theory of autism Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 6 (6), 248-254 DOI: 10.1016/S1364-6613(02)01904-6

Baron-Cohen, S., Richler, J., Bisarya, D., Gurunathan, N., & Wheelwright, S. (2003). The systemizing quotient: an investigation of adults with Asperger syndrome or high-functioning autism, and normal sex differences Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 358 (1430), 361-374 DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2002.1206


Clay said...

Look at this systemization:

While you were reading my blog, I was clearing my way through your words. You are way ahead of me, I know, but that makes me happy...for you, and for autism advocacy in general.

I had no idea about the soil and resulting colors for rhododendrons. (But I could teach you a few things about "The Effects of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds".) ;-)

Dianne said...

You may find this framework interesting as I would imagine it is an expansion of systemisation but more flexibly and arbitrarily applied.

It is relational fram theory and expands on the work of Skinner



The Untoward Lady said...

I think that what Barron-Cohen sees as this social interaction that is impossible to rationalize and requires "empathy" which apparently works by magic is simply due to his unwillingness to really investigate and look closely at what is going on in his social environment. This is a poor quality for a social scientist to have and it probably goes a long way towards explaining why his theories with regards to autism are so wanting.

Perhaps I'm just bitter because of the amount that his pop-psych theory about autism being an "extreme male brain" have hurt me, personally, as an autistic transsexual woman. Yes, it's pop-psych and now that it's popularized people, including my own mother, decided that I could not possibly be a woman because my brain is clearly male because I'm autistic and Dr. Barron-Cohen said so.

Anyway, I'm still convinced that this empathy thing is just social appraisal just that it's done without having to consciously think it through.

Lindsay said...

@Clay - I didn't know that about rhododendrons, either.

@The Untoward Lady - oh, you've got every right to be bitter about this theory, because it *doesn't* leave any room for autistic trans women.

I also think one can intuit things about either systems *or* people/relationships --- he seems to think interpersonal dynamics can *only* be understood intuitively, but I think there are some interpersonal scenarios that are totally amenable to memorizing sets of rules: a mastery of formal etiquette is nothing if not a demonstration of systemizing skill!

The one part of his explanation of why interpersonal relations cannot be deciphered systematically that I thought was true was the thing about the person changing, and needing to know about hir mental state before you can understand or predict hir behavior. I don't think this means you *need* to be able to "catch" a person's emotion contagiously, or magically read their mind (both of those being part of his definition of "empathizing") --- even if you are totally unable to perceive a person's emotion (you're faceblind, say, or like me you cannot interpret --- or most of the time even notice --- nonverbal cues), you can still know a person by 1) observing them, knowing their habits and 2) *talking* to them, and coming to know their mind and feelings that way! With that knowledge of a person to draw on, you can then imagine what a person's reaction to a given scenario might be --- even if you've got social agnosia.

Lindsay said...

Like, the example he provides in the article, about Jane and her birthday, struck me as way too simplistic.

The relevant "operation" isn't Jane's birthday, it's whatever event *on* her birthday she's reacting to!

Like, for this one:

Jane --> Birthday --> Relaxes,

and its confounding twin,

Jane --> Birthday --> Withdraws,

maybe Jane is an introvert, and she can relax at a small, informal gathering made up of just a few close friends, while she gets overwhelmed and withdraws at, say, a surprise party her coworkers throw for her or something.

Knowledge of the properties of Jane, and also some more precision defining the variable "operation," would actually make it possible to describe her different reactions this way and make it intelligible.

The Untoward Lady said...

Basically, the thing about empathy is that it's essentially the ability of the individual to place themselves in the other's situation and imagine what they would feel and how they would react to the situation the other person is in, now. The brain literally does exactly that with regards to mirror neuron activity.

What I'm getting at is that empathy seems to be just a form of trying to understand what is going on in your social environment by assuming everyone else feels and thinks similarly to you.

... In other words it would seem that the exact skill that neurotypical people accuse us of not possessing (empathy) is due specifically to a quality this same researcher insists we do too much of: fail understand others are individuals with their own disparate thoughts and emotions (lack of theory of mind).

Cereus-Sphinx said...

@ The Untoward Lady
I think that what SBC did with the Extreme-Male Brain Theory is took a lot of stereotypes about autistics and men and noticed they matched. For instance it's a stereotype that men don't have as much "feeling" as women and there's a stereotype that autistic people don't have normal emotional reactions... therefore male brain. Of course neither are true.

@ Lindsay
I think you're right in all the points you make about systematizing. I'll respond more when I get the words lined up in my head more.

meren said...

@ clay--> I believe an error was made on plant names: rhododendron exchanged for hydrangea. similar letters/sound, but hydrangeas exhibit the phenotype differences based on soil pH as described. Rhodos have a range of colour from white through yellow to deep purples and pinks (spots and stripes too)- but never blue.

Lindsay said...


Whoops! I didn't know that; the article said rhododendron and I don't know anything about either of those plants, so I failed to notice any mistake.