Monday, September 30, 2013

Comparing Apples and Oranges

I came across this article, and I just had to respond. So I sent off this email to both of the authors.
I read your article regarding the criminal culpability of successful vs unsuccessful psychopaths, and I would like to point out that you showed a common misunderstanding of the nature of autism.
The term 'empathy' is used to describe three broad domains of social ability -- social perception, social cognition and emotional empathy. Autistics and psychopaths have distinctly different profiles across these three domains.
Social perception, the ability to recognize and interpret facial expressions, is impaired in both autism and psychopathy, although the impairment is more severe/generalized in autism.
Social cognition, the ability to infer what others think or believe, is impaired in autism, but not in psychopathy. Indeed, in order to be competent at lying and manipulation, an individual must have intact social cognition (many autistic individuals can't lie, and those who can are often quite poor liars).
Lastly, emotional empathy refers to experiencing emotions that are more appropriate to your perception of another's situation, rather than your own situation. It is important to note that accurate perception of another person's situation can be affected by social perceptual and social cognitive abilities. However, when studies ensure that the autistic individual is aware of another's person's emotional state, they show emotional empathy at a typical level. In contrast, psychopathy causes a severe deficit in emotional empathy.
With regards to the moral/conventional distinction, research has shown that autistic individuals are not using a simple rule of 'actions that cause distress are wrong'. Specifically, when the person's distress is unjustified (such as a child crying over not getting an extra share of a fairly-distributed resource), autistic children, like typical children, do not have much sympathy for the 'crybaby'. There are also many anecdotal examples of high-functioning autistic adults presenting moral arguments that use basic principles of morality while going against the rules they were taught about behavior. The debate about treatment of autism is a clear example, with many autistic people who underwent typical treatment practices arguing that these practices are wrong because they cause harm. (See this blog post as an example.)
Comparing successful psychopaths to high-functioning autistics is like comparing deaf people to blind people - they may both have sensory (or social) disabilities, but the nature of their difficulties is completely different.

[PS: Actually, comparing apples and oranges is not actually an example of what that idiom is generally used to mean. Apples and oranges have a lot in common, since they're both fruit. They are both sugary gifts from plants intended to entice animals into distributing their seeds in a little pile of fertilizer.]


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