Author Archives: J. Quinton

Extreme male brain theory of autism confirmed in large new study – and no, it doesn’t mean autistic people lack empathy or are more ‘male’

Two long-standing psychological theories – the empathising-systemising theory of sex differences and the extreme male brain theory of autism – have been confirmed by our new study, the largest of its kind to date. The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, used data on almost 700,000 people in the UK to test the theories.

The first theory, known as the empathising-systemising theory of typical sex differences, posits that, on average, females will score higher on tests of empathy than males, and that, on average, males will score higher on tests of systemising than females.

Empathy is the drive to recognise another person’s state of mind and to respond to another person’s state of mind with an appropriate emotion. Systemising is the drive to analyse or build a system where a system is defined as anything that follows rules or patterns.

The second theory, known as the extreme male brain theory of autism, extends the empathising-systemising theory. It posits that autistic people will, on average, show a shift towards “masculinised” scores on measures of empathy and systemising. In other words, they will score below average on empathy tests, but score at least average, or even above average, on systemising tests.

The data on the almost 700,000 people in our study (including over 36,000 autistic people) came from an online survey carried out for the Channel 4 documentary, Are you autistic?Our analysis of this data robustly confirmed the predictions of these two theories


Beware of misinterpretations

The first misinterpretation is that the results mean that autistic people lack empathy, but this isn’t the case. Empathy has two major parts: cognitive empathy (being able to recognise what someone else is thinking or feeling) and affective empathy (having an appropriate emotional response to what someone else is thinking or feeling).

The evidence suggests that it is only the first aspect of empathy – also known as “theory of mind” – that autistic people on average struggle with. As a result, autistic people are not uncaring or cruel but are simply confused by other people. They don’t tend to hurt others, rather they avoid others.

They may miss the cues in someone’s facial expression or vocal intonation about how that person is feeling. Or they may have trouble putting themselves in someone else’s shoes, to imagine their thoughts. But when they are told that someone else is suffering, it upsets them and they are moved to want to help that person.

So autistic people do not lack empathy.

The second misinterpretation is that autistic people are hyper-male. Again, this is not the case. While our latest study shows that autistic people, on average, have a shift towards a masculinised profile of scores on empathy and systemising tests, they are not extreme males in terms of other typical sex differences. For example, they are not extremely aggressive, but tend to be gentle individuals.

So autistic people are not hyper-male in general.

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Posted by on May 20, 2019 in cognitive science


Epistemic spillovers: Learning others’ political views reduces the ability to assess and use their expertise in nonpolitical domains


On political questions, many people prefer to consult and learn from those whose political views are similar to their own, thus creating a risk of echo chambers or information cocoons. We test whether the tendency to prefer knowledge from the politically like-minded generalizes to domains that have nothing to do with politics, even when evidence indicates that politically like-minded people are less skilled in those domains than people with dissimilar political views. Participants had multiple opportunities to learn about others’ (1) political opinions and (2) ability to categorize geometric shapes. They then decided to whom to turn for advice when solving an incentivized shape categorization task. We find that participants falsely concluded that politically like-minded others were better at categorizing shapes and thus chose to hear from them. Participants were also more influenced by politically like-minded others, even when they had good reason not to be. These results replicate in two independent samples. The findings demonstrate that knowing about others’ political views interferes with the ability to learn about their competency in unrelated tasks, leading to suboptimal information-seeking decisions and errors in judgement. Our findings have implications for political polarization and social learning in the midst of political divisions.

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Posted by on May 19, 2019 in cognitive science


What Scientific Term Or Concept Ought To Be More Widely Known?

Coalitional Instincts

Every human—not excepting scientists—bears the whole stamp of the human condition. This includes evolved neural programs specialized for navigating the world of coalitions—teams, not groups. (Although the concept of coalitional instincts has emerged over recent decades, there is no mutually-agreed-upon term for this concept yet.) These programs enable us and induce us to form, maintain, join, support, recognize, defend, defect from, factionalize, exploit, resist, subordinate, distrust, dislike, oppose, and attack coalitions. Coalitions are sets of individuals interpreted by their members and/or by others as sharing a common abstract identity (including propensities to act as a unit, to defend joint interests, and to have shared mental states and other properties of a single human agent, such as status and prerogatives).


Coalition-mindedness makes everyone, including scientists, far stupider in coalitional collectivities than as individuals.”


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Posted by on May 9, 2019 in cognitive science


Is Nothing Sacred? Religion, Sex, and Reproductive Strategies


Religion has often been conceptualized as a collection of beliefs, practices, and proscriptions that lift people’s thoughts and behaviors out of the metaphorical gutter of sex and selfishness toward lives full of meaning, contemplation, and community service. But religious beliefs and behaviors may serve selfish, sexual motivations in ways that are not always obvious or consciously intended. We review two lines of research illustrating nonobvious links between the mundane and the religious. First, contrary to long-held assumptions that religious upbringing causes sexually restrictive attitudes and behaviors, several large data sets now suggest a reverse causal arrow—people’s preferred mating strategies determining their attraction toward, or repulsion from, religion. Second, other recent findings suggest that distrust of nonreligious individuals is almost completely erased by knowledge that they are following a restricted monogamous lifestyle. Thus, reproductive strategies often underlie apparently sacred concerns. We close with a consideration of ways in which reproductive interests might underlie a broad range of benefits associated with religious affiliation.

Jordan W. Moon, Jaimie Arona Krems, Adam B. Cohen, Douglas T. Kenrick, 2019

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Posted by on May 6, 2019 in religion


Falsifiability is Bayesian Evidence

I’ve explained how Bayes Theorem demonstrates nicely why an explanation being unfalsifiable is a bad explanation. An explanation that can be used to explain some data and explain the complete opposite of those data is a bad explanation. But I should note that “bad” is doing a lot of work here; on topics besides the existence of god (a hypothesis of maximum entropy; one of the most common and most unfalsifiable explanations out there) it should be more comparative. Yet, “bad” doesn’t necessitate “wrong”.

If you don’t feel like clicking on my many previous posts on the topic, I’ll explain here again using a similar example.

Say I have two pants pockets. One pocket has only $USD coins and the other pocket has coins from all across the world, including $USD coins. If I pull a coin from a random pocket and it’s a $USD dime, does this mean that I pulled it from the pocket with only $USD coins or from the pocket that has coins from all over the world?

All else being equal (e.g., the same number of coins or same number of $USD coins in each pocket) it’s more likely that I pulled it from the pocket that only has $USD coins. This is because there are more possible coins available in the pocket with coins from all over the globe. The citizen of the world pocket is less falsifiable than the $USD pocket. But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. That the citizen of the world pocket can be used to explain both pulling out a $USD coin and also not pulling out a $USD coin makes it a worse explanation than the $USD only pocket. Less likely doesn’t mean wrong though.

What does an unfalsifiable explanation look like? Again, I’ll invoke the god hypothesis. One pocket has only $USD coins and the other pocket is a pocket of miracles. Any coin from any civilization on any planet in the entirety of existence is possible from the other pocket. The reason this is unfalsifiable is because there are more possibilities for coins. Someone trying to use the miracle pocket to explain pulling out a $USD quarter would reply “but you can’t prove it wrong!

The fact that you can’t prove it wrong is what makes it less likely to be true. Less likely than something that can be proven wrong.

Again, you can look at the math behind this logic here.

The operating principle here is that, the more potential (and mutually exclusive) data a hypothesis, explanation, or model can explain, the less likely it is to explain any particular datum. Somewhat counter-intuitive, but this is what probability theory tells us. Do not trust your intuitions when it comes to probability. They are wrong.

As I wrote in one of the other posts on Bayes Theorem and falsifiability, god could have had us live on any planet in the solar system. With god, all things are possible. But we just so happen to live on the only planet in our solar system where it’s possible for intelligent life to exist without supernatural intervention. Yet if we invoke god, that hypothesis could be used to explain us living on Jupiter or Mercury or a comet orbiting the sun every 150 years; the naturalism hypothesis cannot explain those possibilities, if one of them is what had actually happened. God has more possible locations to create humanity (i.e., can’t be proven wrong) than a godless hypothesis.

For a more real-world example so I can stop beating up on god, the same situation happens between evolutionary psychology and blank-slatism. Blank-slatism and the social constructionist hypotheses / social role theories claim that any configuration of human behavior is possible due to socialization, but we just so happen to live in a world where e.g., men have a high murder rate among their fellow men, just like the males of our primate cousins.

The social constructionist hypothesis isn’t as egregious as the god hypothesis, but it’s still less falsifiable than any evolutionary explanation. In this case, intrasexual competition.

Let’s continue with the examples.

What if I told you that the number of men against abortion is higher than the number of women who are anti-abortion? Of course, Patriarchy makes men misogynists who treat women as baby machines so of course they don’t want women to have a choice.

What if I told you that the number of women against abortion is higher than the number of men who are anti-abortion?

Of course, Patriarchy makes women have to behave like men, that makes women internalize their misogyny so that means they’ll be viewing themselves as baby machines.

Do you see what I did there? A hypothesis (Patriarchy) that can explain data and be used to explain the complete opposite of those data? That means it can’t be proven wrong. That means it’s behaving like the god hypothesis.

That means it’s unfalsifiable. That means it’s a bad explanation.

What would be a good hypothesis? One that explains only one of those situations and completely fails at explaining the other. Something like intrasexual competition, which would say that abortion is a woman on woman problem and men care less either way. Intrasexual competition can only apply to one of those hypotheticals, and ***spoiler alert*** it’s the one that we see:

Intrasexual competition makes no sense for men being more anti-abortion than women, (and if that was indeed the case we could rule intrasexual competition out, like how getting a non-$USD coin rules out the $USD-only pocket) but makes sense to explain why women are more anti-abortion than men (and more pro-abortion than men): They are competing with other women. Indeed, the poll above shows that the abortion debate is mainly a battle between republican women and democrat women. Now it shouldn’t surprise you that the same thing happens in other domains related to sex and reproduction among humans. Like going topless, sex work, fat shaming, promiscuity/slut shaming, wearing makeup, etc. All of those are topics where men are less polarized about it than women, just like abortion.

Now I’m not saying that all current models of evolutionary psychology are gold. But with no other information, evolutionary hypotheses have a higher prior of being correct than social role hypotheses when it comes to large scale human behavior. Indeed, human beings are biased to apply social rules to phenomena when they don’t actually apply. The opposite — not applying social rules when they should — rarely happens. Remember, our intuitions about invoking social rules as an explanation are because we want to curry favor, support allies, or denigrate enemies. It makes System 1 sense that society tells men to be more violent than women, or that society forces women to be less aggressive than men. Unfortunately, your intuitions are highly unlikely to be true. And as I demonstrated above, the social role explanation isn’t a very robust explanation.

As a matter of fact, a lot of the problems people point out with evolutionary psychology today are the same ones that were encountered with evolutionary biology in the 19th century. Darwin’s original formulation had no mechanism (DNA hadn’t been discovered), no predictions (it was explaining things that people had already seen, i.e., a “just-so” story), and no mathematical models.

But it was still a good explanation; a better explanation than alternatives. A lot better explanatory framework than <strike>social constructionism</strike> Creationism. And that’s all that really matters. The more falsifiable explanation wins the race.

The moral of the story is, that there are very few things we encounter in either science or every day life that are wholly unfalsifiable (besides the existence of god). Unfalsifiability shouldn’t be viewed as a binary option. Some explanations are either more or less falsifiable than others. Falsifiability is Bayesian, and like all things Bayesian, should be used in a comparative, greater than/less than manner and not in a binary is/is not formulation. I’m just a lone voice crying out in the wilderness, but I would like “unfalsifiable” to be replaced with “more” or “less” falsifiable in almost all common usage; only save “unfalsifiable” for truly egregious cases like omnipotent gods or Last Thursdayism.

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Posted by on April 30, 2019 in Bayes, cognitive science, religion


How Internet Fighting Works

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Posted by on April 26, 2019 in religion


Big gods came after the rise of civilisations, not before, finds study using huge historical database

When you think of religion, you probably think of a god who rewards the good and punishes the wicked. But the idea of morally concerned gods is by no means universal. Social scientists have long known that small-scale traditional societies – the kind missionaries used to dismiss as “pagan” – envisaged a spirit world that cared little about the morality of human behaviour. Their concern was less about whether humans behaved nicely towards one another and more about whether they carried out their obligations to the spirits and displayed suitable deference to them.

Nevertheless, the world religions we know today, and their myriad variants, either demand belief in all-seeing punitive deities or at least postulate some kind of broader mechanism – such as karma – for rewarding the virtuous and punishing the wicked. In recent years, researchers have debated how and why these moralising religions came into being.

Now, thanks to our massive new database of world history, known as Seshat (named after the Egyptian goddess of record keeping), we’re starting to get some answers.

Read more at The Conversation

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Posted by on March 22, 2019 in religion

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