Theory of Mind and Social Decision Making (MA Neuropsychology Research)

Jessica Ringshaw

My study was on Theory of Mind (ToM) and moral decision-making in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Therefore, I focused on specific social difficulties that ASD children may have, and I investigated ToM as a potential underlying mechanism. ToM pertains to perspective-taking, intention-detection and behavioural prediction abilities, and it has been associated with social difficulties in ASD. Moral decision-making falls under the broader construct of social decision-making and is likely to rely on ToM. Consequently, conceptualising the relationship between ToM and moral decision-making in ASD may provide insight into the social difficulties experienced by this clinical population.

My study aimed to compare moral decision-making in children with ASD and children without ASD, and to determine whether ToM plays a role in moral decision-making. Boys between 6 and 12 years old participated in my study, with a group of 38 boys with ASD, and a control group of 38 boys without ASD. The moral decision-making tasks looked at how children share (Dictator Game) and allocate resources in third-party social scenarios (Distributive Justicetask) based on generosity and judgement of fairness, respectively. The results from the Dictator Game showed that, although both groups responded to social information, the way in which they responded differed. The results from the Distributive Justice task were also significant. Across conditions representing social inequality based on wealth, merit and health, children without ASD allocated significantly more resources to the morally deserving recipient. In contrast, the children with ASD demonstrated a preference for allocating equally, regardless of the social information. The quotes also showed that the children with ASD showed a tendency to systemize rather than empathize in making moral decisions; this means that they were more likely to consider each social scenario presented to them as a fixed “system”. Using this approach, it is possible that they used rules to manipulate a phenomenon that they perceived to be lawful and predictable. The difficulty recognising that people are not rule-governed systems is a potential explanation for ASD children’s atypical social-decisions. Given the limited predictive power of systemizing in the social world, this type of approach in ASD could potentially result in social decision-making behaviour that society deems as inappropriate.

Lastly, my study also showed that ToM was a significant predictor of moral decision-making. Therefore, it is likely that the evident ToM difficulties in the ASD group may have disrupted the typical process of moral decision-making. More specifically, the ASD children may have had difficulty translating their empathic arousal into empathic concern and, in turn, may have been less motivated to behave “empathically” in making moral decisions. Therefore, I do not propose a lack of morality in ASD but rather a difficulty using social information in the application of moral principles due to ToM deficits.

Overall, the results of this study are significant as they point to atypical patterns of moral decision-making, and therefore social decision-making, in ASD as well as a potential underlying mechanism. This may aid people’s understanding of social impairment in South African children with ASD and lends support for the establishment of a predictive model for moral decision-making. Lastly, the acquisition of this knowledge may serve as foundational work to guide future research investigating the role of empathizing vs. systemizing in moral decision-making, within the context of ASD.

Thank you to all the families and schools for participating in my study!


About UCT Autism Research

The aim of University of Cape Town Autism ACSEPT is to promote autism awareness and knowledge through high-quality basic and applied research.
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