People are known to act more prosocially when they believe they are watched by others. This is thought to be mediated by the incentive to improve one’s social reputation, which is possibly a uniquely human motivation. The authors of this study tested the hypothesis that social reputation effects are selectively impaired in autism, a developmental disorder characterized in part by impairments in reciprocal social interactions but whose underlying cognitive causes remain unclear. When asked to make real charitable donations in the presence or absence of an observer, healthy controls donated significantly more in the observer’s presence than in their absence, replicating prior work. By contrast, people with high-functioning autism were not influenced by the presence of an observer in this task. However, both groups performed significantly better on a continuous performance task in the presence of an observer, suggesting intact general social facilitation in autism. The authors suggest that people with autism lack the ability to take into consideration what others think of them. The study also supports the idea that there are specialized neural systems mediating the effects of social reputation.
Izuma K , Matsumoto K, Camerer CF and Adolphs R: Insensitivity to social reputation in autism, Proc.Natl. Acad. Sci. USA [Epub ahead of print, October 10, 2011, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1107038108].