Baron Cohen Et Al

Overview of some of the things you will need to know for the core studies exam

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  • Created by: Amy Joyce
  • Created on: 24-04-13 17:55

Background to the study

What are some characteristics of Autism?

Communication problems, obsessive and compulsive behaviour, Social isolation and withdrawal, Lack of imaginitive play and Below average IQ.

The term autism was first introduced by Leo Kanner in 1943.

Hans Asperger then reported a condition where most characteristics of autism were present but with normal IQ levels and language development.

This then became known as aspergers syndrome.

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Theory of Mind (ToM)

Simon Baron Cohen claims that the numerous apparently seperate deficits that autistics suffer can be explained by just one impairment in the way that autistics process information.

He claims that they lack Theory of Mind (ToM). This means that they have the inability to recognize and appreciate the mental states (thoughts, desires, fears) of other people.

He also refers to this as being mind blindness.

Theory of mind usually starts to develop when a child is 2 years old for example with imaginative play.

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Hypothesis/aim of the study

Aim: To investigate if autism in adults is causes by a core cognitive deficit (an impaired theory of mind) by using a more complicated, challenging ToM test.

Hypothesis: It was predicted that only one group (HFA- adults with autism) would be significantly impaired on the Eyes Task.

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Research Method and Subjects

Research method: 

Quasi experiment   (Where the IV is the mental condition of the patients) Using matched subjects design as the participants were matched on age.

Also Self report was used as questions were asked.


Group 1: 16 high functioning adults with autism (HFA) or aspergers syndrome (AS).

13 males and 3 females, with normal IQ levels recruited by Self selected sampling method Via an advert in the National Autistic Society magazine and through doctors.

Group 2: 50 age matched controls (25 males, 25 females) with no history of psychiatric disorder and presumed normal IQ levels.

Group 3: Ten adults (8 males, 2 females) with tourettes syndrome (TS), aged matched with groups 1 and 2 with normal IQ levels.

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Procedure- Experimental task 1

The procedure consisted of 4 tasks- 2 experimental tasks and 2 control tasks.

Experimental task 1- The eyes task: A collection of eyes from 25 different males and females obtained from magazines were shown for just 3 seconds each. Participants had a 'forced choice' task having to choose which mental states were being shown out of 2 choices. In some trials the eyes were basic e.g. serious or playful. On others they were complex e.g. desire for you or desire for someone else. The choice was always between the actual mental state displayed and it's opposite or 'foil'. The decision about what was the 'correct' answer was made by four judges (2 male, 2 female) and confirmed by another panel of 8 people working independently. 

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Experimental task 2- Happe's strange Stories task

The strange stories task involves trying to judge the mental state such as anxious (the Experimental condition) or physical state Such as crying (Control condition) of characters in short stories. 

Participants in group 1 (adults with autism) and group 3 (adults with tourettes) were also given Happe's strange stories task. If the eyes test was a valid measure of ToM, then the performance on the strange stories task should be similar. 

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Control tasks

In order to check if difficulties on the eyes test were related to other factors. Group 1 (adults with autism) were given 2 extra control tasks..

Gender recognition of eyes: This simply involved the subjects identifying the gender of the people that were shown in the eyes test. This tested wether perceptual processing of faces was the problem for the autistics in the eyes test.

Basic emotion recognition task: Participants were asked to judge whole faces displaying 6 basic emotions identified by Ekman (1992) which were happy, sad, anger, fear, suprise and disgust. This would check if difficulties in the eyes test was due to problems in recognizing emotions displayed on the face in general. Here whole faces were shown and there were only 6 basic emotions to choose from.

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Group 1 (16  high functioning Adults with autism):  The eyes task (max 25)- mean 16.3, range 13-23.

15 out of 25 represents chance performance (guessing without even looking at the eyes). Only 8 autistics perfomed better than chance.

Happe's strange stories- The participants were significantly impaired on this taks.               Gender recognition of faces and basic emotion recognition- Performance on both of the control tasks was normal.

Group 2 ( 50 'Normal' adults): The eyes task- mean 20.3, range 16-25. The range indicates a 'ceiling effect'. (some were able to get all 25 correct). Females performed better than males, but the 'normal' males were still significantly better than the autistic males. Did not take other tasks.

Group 3 (10 adults with tourettes syndrome): The eyes task- mean 20.4, range 16-25. The range of scores indicates a ceiling effect (some able to get all 25 correct).

Happe's strange stories: No mistakes made by anyone. 

Did not take other tasks.

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What do the results tell us? (discussion of result

  • Adults with autism or aspergers syndrome are impaired on Theory of Mind tests despite having normal IQ's.
  • Females perform better than males on Theory of Mind tests. (Supporting the idea that the male brain predisposes some individuals to developing autism).
  • Autism is not related to intelligence as performance on the eyes task was not correlated with IQ.
  • Autism is not due to being unable to interperet contextual cues , as the eyes task did not involve the need to interpret context.
  • The fact that adults with tourettes syndrome could succeed on the eyes task indicates that autism is not simply a consequence of having a neuropsychiatric disorder.
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Advantages and Disadvantages of research method

Quasi Experiment


  • Good control- the same eyes were viewed in the same controlled way.
  • easy to measure the DV- number of eyes judged correctly out of 25.


  • Low ecological validity- was not the same as in everyday life where we see the whole face, not just the eyes and we also have additional cues from social context.
  • Possible demand characteristics- the participants were aware that they were being assessed which may have made them act differently to normal. For example try much harder to succeed on eyes task.
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Evaluating the study

Ecological Validity- In everyday life we usually se peoples whole faces not just the eyes and we also have additional cues in the form of body language, conversation and context. 

Validity- Was it an accurate ToM test? Yes. The choices of terms in the eyes task were mental states not just emotions. Also, performance on the eyes task was equivalent to performance on the Happe's strange stories task so there was concurrent validity.

Reliability- All participants viewed the same set of 25 eyes, in the same order, under the same conditions. Also the mean scores on the eyes task for both of the control groups were almost exactly the same. However, some autistics performed very well on the eyes task, so it was not a consistent finding that they were impaired on this task.

Ethics- May have caused anxiety, stress or embarrassment in those with autism or AS who performed poorly.

Qualitative- Participants were asked to give reasons for how characters behaved in Happe's strange stories task.

Quantitative- Number of correct responses out of 25 on the eyes task. And also for those who took the control tests the number of correct responses in gender and basic emotion recognition test. 

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Conclusions from the study

This study provides support for the idea that adults with autism lack a well developed Theory of Mind and that the ceiling effects in the earlier more simple ToM tests did not allow this to be detected.

This explains why previous research (e.g. bowler 1992) reported findings showing that adults with autism could pass ToM tests.

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How does the study relate to approaches?

The cognitive approach in explaining autism focuses on the problems associated with lacking a theory of mind and proposes that this is the central problem to the condition. This inability to process information relating to what other people are thinking and feeling causes the problems associated with autism.

This study provides evidence that the problems experienced by those with autism is not related to IQ or more general difficuties in interpreting and using context and social situations as this was not required for success in the eyes task.

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Francesco D'Alessio


Good work, Keep it up! 

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