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When is neuroscience not neuroscience?

Here’s a story:
Specific Social Difficulties in People with Autism
New finding provides insight into the psychology of autism-spectrum disorders

This post of mine is a sort-of commentary on the Dobbs Fact or Phrenology? article. The story headlined above  is a report on neuroscience/fMRI research which doesn’t actually contain any neuroscience at all.

I need to explain the study and results (which are interesting, anyway) before getting back to my point.

There is a theory that one factor associated with autism is the lack of a developed ‘theory of mind’ (something you’ll come across in developmental psych sometime). Do a search on ‘autism’ and “theory of mind” (the double quotes are useful there) and you’ll get lots of explanation. Put very simply, people with autism are not aware of what other people are thinking.
In this study, they gave people the opportunity to donate real money to a good cause, either in private or in front of someone else. People without autism tend to give more in front of someone else – we’re sensitive to wanting to look good/generous in front of others. “By contrast, participants with autism gave the same amount of money regardless of whether they were being watched or not. The effect was extremely clear.” Keise Izuma, the first author, is quoted as saying.

They checked out whether this was just a result of the participants with autism not paying any attention to the other person, by trying people witha  maths test. It is normal to do worse on a maths text when you have an audience – distraction, audience anxiety, maybe. The participants with autism were put off by an audience to the same extent as others when doing maths – so they show awareness of presence, but they either aren’t aware of the opinions of others, or don’t care about them, so feel no pressure to look good when donating.

OK, that’s an interesting study, which maybe tells us a bit more about autism (though the basic theory of mind idea behind it is well known and quite well-researched) – but the Press Release headline says “Caltech Neuroscientists Pinpoint…” where’s the ‘neuroscientific pinpointing’?
The last paragraph, apart from the credits, is:

“Next up for the team: MRI studies to investigate what occurs in the brain during such social interactions, as well as other investigations into the biology and psychology of autism.”

So this study is (just) straight psychology, and the neuroscience may come later. It looks from the credits that the study was carried out by one neuroscientist, one undefined person (probably a neuroscientist) and one ‘professor of behavioural economics’.

So what’s my point? I think there are two ways of looking at this. One of these is that the headline is misleading because it’s foregrounding (more newsworthy) neuroscience over (plain old, boring old, experimental social psychology) – but the job of the PR writer (Deborah Williams-Hedges) is to get stories about her university into the news – and this duly appeared on my Twitter feed after being passed on by PsyPost, so that worked. A quick Google search shows that lots of places have picked up and reprinted or reposted the story.

The other way of looking at it is that the title does fairly represent the study (probably two out of three of the researchers were neuroscientists), but the research team is establishing a solid psychological understanding of what they’re looking at before doing the neuroscience, which seems excellent practice, and fits with the recommendations of Dobbs in the fMRI article.


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