Did Asperger’s help cause the crisis?

February 4, 2010

Did the financial system blow up because it was built and largely operated by people with many of the characteristics of a mild form of autism called Asperger’s syndrome?

As explanations for the crisis go, it’s on the extreme side but forms an interesting counterpoint to the “blame the looting bankers” story line.

People with Asperger’s, a mild form of autism, are characterized by, among other things, a deficit of “theory of mind,” essentially the ability to understand that other people have different beliefs or knowledge than themselves. Nicholas Nassim Taleb, author of The Black Swan, has written that a lack of theory of mind left many in positions of responsibility without the ability to conceive of and guard against black swans, which are rare, high-impact and hard to predict events.

There were, after all, a remarkable number of people blaming “hundred-year storms” for the crisis, which was at least in substantial part caused by an over-reliance on risk management controls and models that proved to be far too narrow.

There was a love of data and a refusal to conceive of the data being not wrong, but incomplete, which led many to cling to their models of how the world was working even as it fell around them. Remember all of those reassurances that problems in subprime were “contained”?

“Note that the very same people who attack me, on grounds of political correctness, for discussing Asperger as a condition not compatible with risk-bearing, and its dangers to society, would be opposed to using a person with highly impaired eyesight as the driver of a school bus,” Taleb writes in his typically provocative style.

“All I am saying is that just as I read Milton, Homer, Taha Husain, and Borges (who were blind) but would prefer to not have them drive me on the A-4 motorway, I elect to use tools made by engineers but prefer to have society’s risks managed by someone who is not affected with risk-blindness.”

As someone with a family member with Asperger’s, I think there is a lot of truth to what Taleb says, though perhaps he expresses himself too gruffly. A love of data and models and an unwillingness to engage with ambiguity that can often mean missing the big picture are characteristic of both Asperger’s and of the global financial system circa 2007. This is a far different thing from blaming the crisis on people with Asperger’s, which Taleb does not.

Actually, and here I am fishing in shallower waters than Taleb, there are elements of a typical Asperger’s personality which are extremely useful in guarding against manias and bubbles.

THE EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES

People with Asperger’s Syndrome are largely immune to social pressures; they often do not recognize them, or if they do, dismiss them as silly. They can be, in many ways, like the child in the Hans Christian Andersen story “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” In the story the emperor is sold a new suit made of a fabric that supposedly will be invisible to anyone who is not fit for the position they hold. The suit is a fraud, but the emperor, afraid of being one himself, pretends to be able to see it. Everyone else plays along until the emperor meets a child who calls it as he sees it and pierces the illusion.

Typical people, in order to make the numberless decisions they are forced to make with only limited data, rely heavily on taking their clues from what other people are doing — following the herd. This has a certain efficiency but, as people place a heavy weight on what others are doing, leaves them open to be swept up in manias or bubbles.

This is true for individuals buying houses in 2005 because “everyone knows they will only go up” and it is true for fund managers making “momentum” investments in dotcom stocks. Fashion, for most people, is a powerful faculty-numbing force; just leaf through some old magazines and check out what people were wearing round about 1971.

For people on the Asperger’s spectrum this is far less true; regardless of what people are talking about at cocktail parties, they won’t believe that we can all grow rich by buying up one another’s houses, nor will they take assurances from “authorities” as the final word. Having less fear of looking stupid than the rest of us, they will stand by what they perceive. They are also, at least in my experience, far less likely than the average person to hold a position cynically; because it benefits them rather than because they believe it.

That might not be the only type of person you want in a financial system, but those are some pretty valuable characteristics for a fund manger or banking regulator.

45 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

Great theory, but how about coming back to reality for a second. If your article were to hold any water you would need to test everyone purchasing items on credit and the banking systems etc to see if they were on the spectrum. The truth of the matter is, that everyone on the spectrum is unique and not necessarily as you would assume. Secondly such a crisis comes about by lack of responsibility on the part of consumers and banking systems. In both cases, the expenditure was greater than the income. Basic accounting when I last had a look. Before you start pointing fingers about who could be responsible, why don’t you take a look at yourself and see where your shortfall is. Do you overspend? Do you take responsibility for financial decisions etc. Just a question… Maybe you need to rethink the focus of your article.

Posted by Candida_ZA | Report as abusive

Disrespectful to the amazing individuals currently labelled with the title of Aspergers, in a world where neurotypicals such as the author can show a remarkable lack of courtesy or theory of mind themselves

Posted by Didrichs | Report as abusive

You’re a goose.

As an Aspie, it was very easy for me to ignore the social convention of “It’s AAA so it’s riskless.” I evaluated how severe an event a AAA-level shock is, concluded that such an event had indeed occurred and therefore that AAA CMOs are at very least severely impaired.

It was also very easy to ignore criticism from NTs who couldn’t accept it. And to understand the models’ failings – something that NT managers clearly couldn’t.

Have a think about how many Aspies were skeptical / critical of rating models relative to the population and then try and tell me it’s our fault.

Posted by The_Wog | Report as abusive

I’m sorry, but you make me angry. As a reuters reporter, you should have a little more sense. To say that people with Asperger’s are the reason things are bad? You must not be very intelligent to actually believe that. I have Asperger’s, so what? I don’t run the economy, and if I did, I’d be willing to bet my life that I’d do a better job than the fools who do. Maybe you should look at the history of currency, understand the Brenton Wooods agreement.

An intelligent person would know that you use a poorly constructed post hoc fallacy to try and convince people that: Asperger’s is the reason that the economy isn’t doing well. Wow, I cannot believe that is your opinion. I found this page by searching: Asperger’s help, and this is what I find on the first page? Yes, you write well. But I can only conclude that you’re an idiot or have alterior motives against people on the autism spectrum.

Please, there are a lot of people out there that believe this stuff, which I see written everywhere. Still you persist, and you have no idea the consequences. Or maybe you do. Tell me, what else should I say. I should sue you for libel. Do I see a class action lawsuite. I think I’m going to go to the wrongplanet forums, a place where aspies chat, and advocate for that, and then contact a lawyer. I’m that pissed off. Defamation of character based on disability is no better than saying: Black people, are they the cause of all the crime in the world? I want to make it clear to the author of this article that he is the scum of the world in my opinion.

Posted by SayWhatNow | Report as abusive

Wow, great blog article.Thanks Again. Will read on