Summary: According to a new study, adults on the autism spectrum can recognize complex emotions, such as regret an relief, in others as easily as those without the condition.
Source: University of Kent.
New research shows for the first time that adults with autism can recognise complex emotions such as regret and relief in others as easily as those without the condition.
Psychologists at the University of Kent used eye-tracking technology to monitor participants as they read stories in which a character made a decision then experienced a positive or negative outcome.
The lead author Professor Heather Ferguson, from the University’s School of Psychology, explained that the study highlights a previously overlooked strength in adults with ASD.
The researchers found that adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) were quickly able to think about how things might have turned out differently (either better or worse than reality), then judge whether the story character would feel regret or relief (known as counterfactual emotions).
The adults with ASD were found to be just as good at recognising regret emotions in the character as adults without the condition, and even better at computing relief.
The eye-tracking method provided sensitive information on when readers had inferred the appropriate counterfactual emotion for the character. Appropriate emotions resulted in shorter reading times.
Professor Ferguson said: ‘Our study is unusual in using state-of-the-art eye-tracking methods to test how people understand emotions in real time. We have shown that, contrary to previous research that has highlighted the difficulties adults with autism experience with empathy and perspective-taking, people with autism possess previously overlooked strengths in processing emotions.’
Source: Martin Herrema – University of Kent
Publisher: Organized by NeuroscienceNews.com.
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Original Research: Abstract for “Intact counterfactual emotion processing in autism spectrum disorder: Evidence from eye‐tracking” by Jo Black, Mahsa Barzy, David Williams, and Heather Ferguson in Autism Research. Published December 21 2018.
Intact counterfactual emotion processing in autism spectrum disorder: Evidence from eye‐tracking
Counterfactual emotions, such as regret and relief, require an awareness of how things could have been different. We report a preregistered experiment that examines how adults with and without ASD process counterfactual emotions in real‐time, based on research showing that the developmental trajectory of counterfactual thinking may be disrupted in people with ASD. Participants were eye‐tracked as they read narratives in which a character made an explicit decision then subsequently experienced either a mildly negative or positive outcome. The final sentence in each story included an explicit remark about the character’s mood that was either consistent or inconsistent with the character’s expected feelings of regret or relief (e.g., “… she feels happy/annoyed about her decision.”). Results showed that adults with ASD are unimpaired in processing emotions based on counterfactual reasoning, and in fact showed earlier sensitivity to inconsistencies within relief contexts compared to TD participants. This finding highlights a previously unknown strength in empathy and emotion processing in adults with ASD, which may have been masked in previous research that has typically relied on explicit, response‐based measures to record emotional inferences, which are likely to be susceptible to demand characteristics and response biases. Therefore, this study highlights the value of employing implicit measures that provide insights on peoples’ immediate responses to emotional content without disrupting ongoing processing.