A quarterly publication of the Autism Research Institute

The Autism Research Review International is quarterly publication of the Autism Research Institute

Fall, 2016 | Number 4, Volume 30

Individuals with ASD are less susceptible to “optimism bias” than neurotypical individuals

Neurotypical individuals tend to exhibit a significant “optimism bias” when it comes to forming beliefs about future outcomes in their lives. According to a new study, individuals with high-functioning autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are less susceptible to this bias. 

Bojana Kuzmanovic and colleagues say that neurotypical individuals “demonstrate unrealistic optimism, as they tend to overestimate their chances of experiencing positive outcomes, but underestimate their risks of experiencing negative outcomes.” In addition, they say, research indicates that “when people update their beliefs, they tend to take into account good news, but neglect bad news.” 

To see if individuals with high-functioning ASD exhibited the same bias, the researchers asked 21 adults with ASD and 21 neurotypical controls to participate in a task measuring optimism bias. The participants were matched for age, gender, years of education, and IQ.

In the task, participants estimated the risk of experiencing adverse events—for instance, a burglary—in the future. The researchers then provided them with statistics regarding the base population rate for each event. (This statistical information was manipulated as part of the study design.) Afterward, participants had the opportunity to adjust their initial estimates based on the information they received. In half of the trials, participants estimated the risks to themselves; in the other half, they estimated the risk to a similar person of the same age, sex, and socioeconomic background. 

“In accordance with previous studies,” the researchers say, “typically developing individuals tended to make larger self-related updates after good news (base rates of adverse events better than expected) than after bad news (base rates worse than expected).” They also were more optimistic when it came to their own outcomes than the outcomes of other people. In contrast, individuals with ASD did not exhibit a significant optimism bias when evaluating the future risks to themselves, and they did not predict risks to themselves more optimistically than risks to others. These findings remained true when the researchers controlled for depressive symptoms. 

The researchers note that a cognitive style involving increased rationality may interfere with social functioning, “because the interpretation of complex social situations often requires spontaneous conclusions guided by ambiguous communicative cues and their emotional significance.” However, they note that enhanced rationality may provide substantial benefits as well. 

“In contexts such as marketing and politics,” they say, “a smaller susceptibility to emotionally and motivationally significant cues that are non-informative for the actual aim of the decision may be beneficial. Also, enhanced objectivity may be advantageous when planning complex projects, in which overconfidence and the neglect of possible obstacles would foster planning fallacy, and financial and psychological harm.”


“Brief report: Reduced optimism bias in self-referential belief updating in high-functioning autism,” Bojana Kuzmanovic, Lionel Rigoux, and Kai Vogeley, Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, October 18, 2016 (online). Address: Bojana Kuzmanovic, Max Planck Institute for Metabolism Research Cologne, Translational Neurocircuitry Group, Gleueler Str. 50 50931 Cologne, Germany, bojana.kuzmanovic@ sf.mpg.de.