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Published in final edited form as:
Trends Cogn Sci. 2012 Apr; 16(4): 231–239.
Published online 2012 Mar 17. doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2012.02.007
Over the last three decades, a number of theories have been put forward to account for the pervasive social impairments found in Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). Among the various attempts, the idea of a core deficit in social cognition (Theory of Mind, or ToM, in particular, see Glossary) has become one of the most prominent accounts of ASD. Concomitantly, the impact of motivational factors on the development of social skills and social cognition has received little attention. Recently however, social motivation has emerged as a promising research domain at the intersection of social psychology, behavioral economics, social neuroscience and evolutionary biology. (Hmmm…quite a deterministic academic gang…)This paper integrates these diverse strands of research and defends the idea that social motivation is a powerful force guiding human behavior and that disruption of social motivational mechanisms may constitute a primary deficit in autism. In this framework, motivational deficits are thought to have downstream effects on the development of social cognition and deficits in social cognition are therefore construed as a consequence, rather than a cause, of disrupted social interest.
ASD people are still subhuman: the argument is over who’s right about which came first; the defective chicken or the defective egg?
Providing a complete picture of social motivation requires both proximate and ultimate explanations. Proximate explanations pertain to how a behavior functions and ultimate explanations to why it was selected by evolution. (The assumption is that EVERY behavior, no matter what, is determined by “Evolution”: you are a robot) At the proximal level, social motivation can be described as a set of psychological dispositions and biological mechanisms biasing the individual to preferentially orient to the social world (social orienting), to seek and take pleasure in social interactions (social reward), and to work to foster and maintain social bonds (social maintaining). At the ultimate level, social motivation constitutes an evolutionary adaptation geared to enhance the individual’s fitness in collaborative environments.
Is anyone diagnosed ASD starting to feel like an evolutionary failure yet? And the neuro-totalitarian dictators wonder why we run away???
We first present evidence supporting this integrated model of social motivation and go on to review behavioral manifestations of diminished social orienting, social reward and social maintaining in ASD (nothing like a sweeping generalization of the diverse population of HUMAN BEINGS who qualify for a life term on the ASD “spectrum”) and the associated disruptions in the neural circuitry that typically underlie these behaviors. We then demonstrate that, as predicted by the evolutionary framework, some areas of social functioning are preserved in ASD. We conclude by arguing that deficits in social cognition are better explained within a social motivation framework, and acknowledge the limits of both socio-cognitive and social motivation theories in accounting for non-social deficits in ASD. (Ever feel like you’re being “profiled” and subjected to never-ending stop and frisk harassment by the “behavior cops”?)
What this pile of euphemistic jargon says: We’re reaffirming the status quo that healthy-normal humans are SOCIAL HUMANS, and any individual who isn’t driven by social orienting, social reward and social maintaining, isn’t “healthy-normal” and therefore is “unfit for collaborative environments” (that means any human environment)
Where are we, North Korea?