Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Medical Society

2012 Research Abstract

The framing effect and social cognition in individuals with autism spectrum disorder

Investigator: Isaac Jonathan Pomeraniec, University of Virginia School of Medicine

Mentors: Andrew J. Gerber, MD, PhD, New York State Psychiatric Institute, Columbia University Medical Center; Mark J. Mendelsohn, MD, University of Virginia School of Medicine

Introduction: Autism, a complex psychiatric illness thought to involve specific deficits in social cognition, has been associated with a reduced tendency to incorporate emotional context into decision making processes. Evidence increasingly suggests that individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder have deficits in their ability to form and use schemas and that while these individuals may develop compensatory strategies for applying schemas, these strategies may be less efficient than those used by healthy individuals. We developed a decision making task in which monetary prospects were presented as either gains or losses. The framing effect predicts that individuals preferentially adopt risky behavior in negative (loss) frames but risk-averse behavior in positive (gain) frames, even though the odds of coming out ahead or behind are identical in both situations. Methods Subjects receive a hypothetical starting amount of money and are asked to choose between a "sure" option and a “risky” gamble. Both options yield the same expected outcome based on probability alone. However, this choice is presented both in a “gain” frame, presented as an amount of money that the subject can keep, and a “loss” frame, presented as an amount of money that the subject can lose. Thus, these choices are contextually different.

Results: In total, 30 subjects (15 ASD, 15 health controls) were recruited and enrolled in this study. The behavioral results validate the observation that Individuals with high functioning autism spectrum disorder show a statistically significant reduced susceptibility to the framing effect. Compared to healthy control subjects, ASD subjects gambled more consistently in both the gain and loss frames (e.g. showed a lower predisposition to gambling in the loss frame compared to the gain frame than healthy controls). Preliminary data from the fMRI social cognition task suggest that changes in activity in the temporal pole and fusiform gyrus are associated with the implicit use of social schemas in processing information.

Conclusion: The present study showed a reduced susceptibility to the framing effect on behalf of high functioning autistic individuals compared to healthy control counterparts. However, the views that a) the framing effect provides an overarching explanation for deviations in standard rational human choice and b) that these deviations, as they relate to high functioning autistic individuals, can be explained by a lack of emotional context, may indeed be oversimplified. This study served to show that not every subject can be explained by the framing effect and that, in fact, some subjects perform opposite to that expected by such an effect. Further, more than one distinct set of strategies emerged over the course of the experiment. This may suggest that those individual differences, and perhaps the narratives underlying those differences, are key components guiding human decision-making that have thus far been largely overlooked.

The AΩA Carolyn L. Kuckein Student Research Fellowship provided a significant proportion of funding to aid in the completion of the above study.

Updated on September 9, 2013.

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