Decisions are based on the way choices are framed. This is because people use emotion when making decisions, leading to some options feeling more desirable than others. For example, when given £50, we are more likely to gamble the money if we stand to lose £30 than if we are going to keep £20.
Although both options are mathematically equivalent, the thought of losing money evokes a powerful emotional response and we are more likely to gamble to try to avoid losing money. This cognitive bias, first described by the psychologist Daniel Kahneman in the 1980s, is known as the “framing effect”. Despite this phenomenon being well documented, scientists are still trying to understand why our emotions have such a powerful influence on decision making.
My colleagues and I at King’s College London investigated how the perception of internal bodily sensations is related to emotion and how this may, in turn, be linked to how we make decisions. First, we gave a group of typical adults a gambling task to measure their susceptibility to the framing effect. They were later asked to close their eyes and count their heartbeats to measure how well they monitored internal sensations. Their emotional awareness was also measured using a questionnaire. We discovered that people who were good at monitoring their heartbeat – people who “followed their heart” – were most guided by emotion and particularly susceptible to the framing effect.
But what about people with poor emotional awareness and difficulties monitoring their heartbeat? Research has shown that these things are impaired in people with alexithymia, otherwise known as “emotional blindness”. As emotional blindness is more common in people with autism, we tested a group of adults diagnosed with this condition. Replicating previous research, people with autism showed a smaller framing effect. It was found that people with autism were able to monitor their heartbeat just as well as people without autism, but there was no relationship between how well they did this, or emotional awareness, and their susceptibility to the framing effect.
Ignore your heart
This indicates that people with autism use a different strategy when making decisions. Instead of using intuition and emotion like people without autism, they were not following their heart and don’t use emotional information to guide their decisions. Instead, they viewed differently framed, but numerically equivalent, options more rationally than typical people. So they gambled just as much as non-autistic people, but did so using the numerical information instead of making decisions based on how those numbers made them feel.
This demonstrates that “following your heart” is related to complex decision-making, which builds on recent work showing that heartbeat perception is linked to survival in the financial markets. However, it also suggests that listening to your heart and being in touch with your emotions – usually seen as positive things – may lead to decisions that are not so rational.
Our findings add to evidence showing that people with autism think differently to typical people. Although this is related to the difficulties they experience in social situations, this different way of thinking may sometimes be advantageous in situations where it is it better to follow your head and not your heart.