Selective impairment of cognitive empathy for moral judgment in adults with high functioning autism

Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2013 Oct;8(7):780-8. doi: 10.1093/scan/nss067. Epub 2012 Jun 11.


Faced with a moral dilemma, conflict arises between a cognitive controlled response aimed at maximizing welfare, i.e. the utilitarian judgment, and an emotional aversion to harm, i.e. the deontological judgment. In the present study, we investigated moral judgment in adult individuals with high functioning autism/Asperger syndrome (HFA/AS), a clinical population characterized by impairments in prosocial emotions and social cognition. In Experiment 1, we compared the response patterns of HFA/AS participants and neurotypical controls to moral dilemmas with low and high emotional saliency. We found that HFA/AS participants more frequently delivered the utilitarian judgment. Their perception of appropriateness of moral transgression was similar to that of controls, but HFA/AS participants reported decreased levels of emotional reaction to the dilemma. In Experiment 2, we explored the way in which demographic, clinical and social cognition variables including emotional and cognitive aspects of empathy and theory of mind influenced moral judgment. We found that utilitarian HFA/AS participants showed a decreased ability to infer other people's thoughts and to understand their intentions, as measured both by performance on neuropsychological tests and through dispositional measures. We conclude that greater prevalence of utilitarianism in HFA/AS is associated with difficulties in specific aspects of social cognition.

Keywords: Asperger syndrome; emotion; moral judgment; social cognition; utilitarianism.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Autistic Disorder / physiopathology*
  • Cognition* / physiology
  • Emotions / physiology
  • Empathy / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Intention
  • Judgment / physiology*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Morals*
  • Social Behavior
  • Young Adult