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Reputation Management: Evidence for Intact Ability but Reduced Propensity in Adults with Autism

Friday, 3 May 2013: 14:00-18:00
Banquet Hall (Kursaal Centre)
E. Cage1,2, E. Pellicano2, P. Shah1 and G. Bird3, (1)Birkbeck College, London, United Kingdom, (2)Centre for Research in Autism & Education, London, United Kingdom, (3)Department of Psychological Sciences, Birkbeck College, London, United Kingdom

People often change their behaviour when other people are around to protect their reputation. Previous research has shown that adults with autism fail to change their behaviour when being observed donating to charity, which the authors claimed to be due to fundamental problems in theory of mind (Izuma, Matsumoto, Camerer, and Adolphs, 2011).


The current study aimed to test an alternate explanation for this apparent lack of reputation management; that autistics find a good reputation less intrinsically rewarding. As such, there may be situations in which adults with autism are more likely to manage their reputation when it is rewarding for them to do so.


Twenty typical and 19 autistic adults, matched for age and intellectual ability, donated to charity and to a person, both when alone and when observed by another person (a confederate). Critically, for half of the participants within each group, the observer was also the recipient of their donations and participants were told that the observer would subsequently have the opportunity to donate to them (motivation condition). This manipulation was designed to encourage a ‘tit-for-tat’ strategy in the participant and thus motivate reputation management in order to receive donations in return. The remaining participants were told that the person watching was simply observing the task's procedure (no motivation condition).


Results confirmed that autistic adults did not donate more to charity when observed. Importantly, both typical and autistic adults in the motivation condition donated significantly more to the person when watched by that person, presumably as there was a potential reward to be gained by doing so. Self-report data also suggested that the autistic participants were aware of the potential effect of their behaviour on the observer. Nevertheless, the motivation effect was significantly attenuated in the autistic individuals in comparison to the typical individuals.


The results indicated, contrary to Izuma et al.’s (2012) claims, that autistic adults have the ability to manage their reputation in certain situations. The fact that they showed a reduced propensity to engage in reputation management under motivating conditions, however, suggests that motivational problems may precede social cognitive difficulties.

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