Implicit social cognition in autism spectrum disorder

Macinska, Sylwia Teresa

Psychology
March 2019

Thesis or dissertation


Rights
© 2019 Sylwia Teresa Macinska. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without the written permission of the copyright holder.
Abstract

Implicit learning about people’s states of mind relies inherently on associated emotions and affective valences, with abstract concepts such as disposition, attitude and intention being an intrinsic part of what is learned. Yet, similarly to studies aiming at the typically developed population, nearly all implicit learning studies on individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), are limited to the non-social domain, neglecting the possibility of domain-specific implicit learning impairments. Human behaviour is variable and complex and therefore detecting regularities in social interactions may be more challenging than in the physical world, which is largely governed by predictable laws.

This project employed a novel implicit learning paradigm to evaluate implicit learning abilities in the social and non-social domains in typically-developed individuals with varying levels of ASD traits and individuals with a clinical diagnosis of ASD.

The results revealed that impairments in implicit learning in ASD individuals emerge with respect to implicit social learning, with intact implicit learning abilities in the non-social domain. Deficits in implicit social learning were observed despite the participants’ ability to correctly identify facial expressions, gaze direction and identities of the characters used in the studies. These findings extrapolated to typically-developed individuals high in ASD traits, suggesting a gradient of social implicit learning ability that runs throughout the population.

The relative contributions of three potential mechanisms underpinning implicit social learning were examined: (i) contingency learning per se, (ii) contribution of other cognitive processes such as memory for facial expressions and social attention, (iii) implicit affective tagging. The evidence suggests that individuals with ASD may be impaired in their ability to implicitly incorporate affective values into cognitive processing, supporting the implicit affective tagging hypothesis. I argue that ASD individuals use alternative strategies to comprehend others’ minds, relying more on physical characteristics, rather than socio-emotional meaning.

Publisher
Department of Psychology, The University of Hull
Supervisor
Jellema, Tjeerd
Qualification level
Doctoral
Qualification name
PhD
Language
English
Extent
3 MB
Identifier
hull:17608
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