There is a fantastical article by Simon Baron-Cohen about how autistic children are more honest than the rest of us and how the neurotypical human brain is characterized by an ability to deceive.

As we all know, Autistic children have troubles with meta-representation, or believing that there could be two versions of reality- one that is factually correct, and which they themselves may hold; and another that is incorrect, but exists in the mind of another human being. Thus, they may not have any problem with knowing some fact about the world, but are greatly disadvantaged when it comes to knowing facts about other people’s mind- as they cannot conceive that somebody can have beliefs that are different from the Reality- in other words that someone has ‘false beliefs’.

As per Simon, the capacity to deceive involves the ability to know that one can have false beliefs; and also that one can manipulate the beliefs of another person, so that the person ends up with a false belief. I doubt whether the first ability is necessarily compromised in people with Autism. After all, they themselves may have had false beliefs about the world (say thinking that sun revolves around the earth) and thus may similarly conjecture that others can also have false beliefs. The trouble may lie elsewhere- they may lack the ability to discern that whatever beliefs they have (whether true or false), the other person might not necessarily have the same beliefs. That is they may confuse their own beliefs with that of another and would not have a higher level meta-representation, that someone can have a different belief set. Thus, the trouble is not with having beliefs- but with the ability to say and understand that “I believe that john believes this”. They may not comprehend such a sentence or thought- as it is superfluous in their world, where their beliefs are consistent with Reality (or are false) and the other person’s beliefs also being consistent with Reality are one and the same. Thus they never require , or are able to use, this recursive ability. I believe this deficit in recursive ability may to some extent explain their language difficulties too. coming back to point, as they themselves cannot comprehend that “I believe john believes X.”, so also they are unable to comprehend that ‘john believes I believe X”. thus, in their innocent and simplistic world, their is no room for either manipulating others via deception; nor of not trusting and always being on their guard against what someone says or does. Thus, they would take sentences at their face value.

I came across this article via The Thinking Blog and there Mary makes some interesting points about whether all deception is bad and all honesty is good; and I concur fully with her that sometimes deception is needed and can be put to good purpose and sometimes truth is not desirable or even moral as per the situation. What is more instrumental is the motive with which the truth or lie is chosen. Thus, I personally am of the opinion that we do need an ability to deceive, but the character to keep the trait in check and to put in good use only.

Simon also makes a point that we treat Autistic traits like honesty as traits on a continuum and not as deficits and I agree with him there too. He treats the normal , social brain as the extreme end of the this trait on which the autistic are the other end; and here I differ. I have already made some strong cases for Schizophrenia to be at the other end; and I would like to support that position by drawing on Simon’s analysis.

If we believe that one trait that Autistic lack is deception and meta-representation or ability to read minds, then the Schizophrenics are bound to be too good at it (as per my thinking they are two ends of a creativity spectrum).

  • The Schizophrenics may use so much meta-representation (thinking that goes ‘I think he thinks that I think that Mary thinks ….’) that they may not only get confused, but sound disoriented and disorganized as they may assume too much about what the other person believes. Much of the incoherence in a psychotic speech may be due to too much of shared context – or too much of’ he-knows-what-she-knows-that-I-know’ sort of thinking. Also keeping multiple perspectives or belief sets may tax their normal working memory capacities, making them sound incoherent.
  • Also as opposed to Autistics , who think people do not have an ability to mind-read- as they themselves lack it- the Schizophrenics may be marked by an increased propensity to consider that people can mind read and that too to a very great extent. This may underlie the frequently found delusion in schizophrenia that their thoughts are being broadcasted– that other can read their mind–or at least they want to read their minds using Gizmo’s like satellites, headphones etc. The schizophrenic, after all, knows the advantages that can be obtained if one can mind read.
  • In its extreme, as the Schizophrenics have too much obsession with mind reading abilities- and the corollary ability to deceive- , they may think that people , in general, are deceptive and manipulators. This may explain why other people would like to insert thoughts or tamper with their thoughts/ memories etc. This may easily give rise to delusions of control.
  • the ability and propensity to deceive, would also explain the paranoia they feel- after all in their warped world view , all, like them, have immense capacity to deceive/ manipulate- and thus is a potential threat- an untrustable person. This gives rise to the paranoid delusions of schizophrenia.
  • Lastly, the obsession of schizophrenics with modeling other minds may lead to multiple personality syndrome (although I know this is not recognized by Psychiatry).

I , like Mary, am not taking sides on whether naive honesty is better or tendency to deceive/camouflage is better; I believe both have their utilities and one should be flexible enough to use both capacities at will. But as we know that much of Human evolution is driven by our capacity to deceive , I would classify schizophrenia as the cost we pay for human Evolution; and Autism as a developmental disorder- We humans are meant to be social and are meant to hide all our raw feelings/ beliefs / thoughts from other persons. Let us deceive, but let us keep that in check- or else be prepared for insanity.

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