A quarterly publication of the Autism Research Institute

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

Summer, 2017 | Number 3, Volume 31

Individuals with autism less susceptible to biased decisions

The reduced sensitivity to contextual clues displayed by many people with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) may make them more efficient at making high-level decisions than their neurotypical peers, according to a new study. 

In the study, George Farmer and colleagues asked 90 adults with ASD and 212 neurotypical controls to participate in an online decision-making task. The researchers’ goal was to study the attraction effect, which they explain “arises when people choose between two options, A and B, that ‘trade-off’ two dimensions—for example, two USB drives that respectively have lower capacity but higher longevity and higher capacity but lower longevity. When the choice set includes a third, ‘decoy’ option that is fractionally worse than A on both dimensions, people very rarely choose the decoy, but its presence boosts the tendency to choose A rather than B—and vice versa if the decoy targets option B.” 

In the experiment, participants evaluated 10 groups of products. In each group, two products (A and B) appeared along with a “decoy.” Participants viewed each A-and-B pair twice—once with the decoy designed to target Product A, and once with it designed to target Product B. 

The researchers say that if participants made decisions based purely on reason, the decoy items would be irrelevant and participants would make the same choice each time they viewed products A and B. If the decoys were effective, however, participants would switch their choice when the decoy changed, favoring the product targeted by the decoy in each group. 

The researchers report, “People with autism spectrum conditions made fewer context-induced preference reversals than did neurotypical individuals. That is, they made more conventionally rational decisions.” 

In a second experiment, the researchers recruited members of the general population to perform the same task, comparing individuals with the highest and lowest scores on the Autism-Spectrum Quotient (which measures levels of autistic traits in neurotypical individuals). Participants with the most autistic traits made more consistent choices in the task than those with the fewest autistic traits, although the difference was less pronounced than in the experiment involving individuals with ASD. 

Farmer comments, “These findings suggest that people with autism might be less susceptible to having their choices biased by the way information is presented to them—for instance, via marketing tricks when choosing between consumer products.”


“People with autism spectrum conditions make more consistent decisions,” George D. Farmer, Simon Baron-Cohen, and William J. Skylark, Psychological Science, June 2017 (free online). Address: William J. Skylark, Department of Psychology, University of Cambridge, Downing Street, Cambridge CB2 3EB, United Kingdom, wjm2 [email protected]


“Adults with autism make more consistent choices,” news release, Association for Psychological Science, June 27, 2017.