Baron-Cohen - Cognitive Psychology



Baron-Cohens aim was: to see if high functioning individuals with autism/AS lack a theory of mind.

Background: Autism is a severe developmental disorder characterised by a number of impairments:-

  • Impairments in social interaction
  • Impairments in communication
  • Repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behaviour.

It is thought that these features of autism are due a lack of theory of mind. TOM is the ability to ability to infer, in other people, a range of mental states, such as beliefs, desires, intentions, imaginations and emotions.
Baron-Cohen argues that having some difficulty in understanding other peoples' point of view is not the only feature of the autistic spectrum but it is a CORE feature because it appears in ALL autistics.

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Baron-Cohen used 3 groups of participants.

An experimental sample was used and Pp's were volunteers - recruited through adverts in the National Autistic Society, from a TS centre etc.


16 adults (13 male and 3 female) with high functioning autism (4) or Asperger's syndrome (12)

50 normal age-matched adults - 25 male, 25 female

10 adult patients with Tourette's Syndrome (8 male, 2 female), also age-matched.

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IV - type of Pp's - Normal, Autistic, Tourette's syndrome

DV - performance on eye task (out of 25)

Procedure: Pp's took part in 4 tasks: Eyes Task, Strange Stories Task and 2 control tasks (gender and emotion recognition tasks).

Eyes Task: -

  • 25 photos of the eye region
  • Each photo was 15cm x 10cm black and white
  • Pp's shown photo for 3 seconds
  • Pp's asked a force choice question - choosing between a target and foil(opposite) word e.g. concerned/unconcerned
  • Each Pp was tested individually in a quiet room
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Procedure cont.

Strange Stories Task: This is an advanced TOM test and if any group has difficulties with the Eye Task then they should also have difficulties with this Strange Stories Task.

Pp's in Group 1 and 3 were tested on Happe's Strange Stories Task in order to demonstrate the validity of the Eyes Task as a test of TOM.

Control Tasks: In order to check whether difficulties with the Eyes Task might be due to other factors Pp's in group 1 were given 2 control tasks.

  • Gender recognition - Pp's had to identify the gender of the eyes used in the Eyes Task.
  • Basic emotion recognition task - Pp's asked to judge photos of whole faces which displayed the six basic emotions - happy, sad, angry, afraid, discust and suprise.
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  • Tourette's and normal control groups performed significantly better on the eyes task than the group with autism or Asperger's.
  • Tourette's group made no errors on the Strange Stories Task but Autism and Asperger's did.
  • There were no differences between the groups on the control tasks.

Eye Task results:

Mean results (max. 25):

  • Autistics = 16.3
  • Normal = 20.3
  • Tourettes = 20.4
  • Male = 18.8 - Female = 21.8
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The core deficit involved in autism is the lack of an advanced TOM.

Poor performance by the autism/AS group could not have been due to low intelligence as they had normal/high IQs.

Poor performance by the autism/AS group could not have been due to development neuropsychiatric disability as Tourette's group performed well. Within the normal population, females have more advanced theory of mind skills than males.

The eye task is a 'pure theory of mind test' because there is NO context.

Discussion/Evaluation points:

  • How high is the ecological validity of this study?
  • The eye task uses static images - real life social situations are in motion
  • The sample of Pp's may not be realistic for a real life situation
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