Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Economics and Asperger’s

Anyone who has been paying attention will notice that a lot of economists are Aspies. True, we don’t have any hard evidence on this, but just look around at an ASSA meeting. You will see lots of stiffly-moving men lost in their own worlds, slamming into or just ignoring the people milling around them. Then, of course, we have the testimony of “autistic economics”, portrayals of human behavior that elevate Aspie-like eccentricities to an operating norm for society.

There are many candidate explanations for this. (1) Economics, by its nature, leans in an abstract, formalistic direction, like music, math and chess, and all these fields seem to attract and make effective use of the skills of Aspies. (2) Academic life, more generally, exalts feats of the intellect over what is now called “emotional intelligence”, especially at large research institutions. (Prediction: you will see far fewer Aspie-economists in small liberal arts colleges, where collegiality and connection to students are more highly valued.) (3) The peculiar representation of human society as a field of colliding particles, each pursuing its own individual, unrelated trajectory, ought to be well received on Planet Asperger.

Whatever the etiology, the prevalence of Asperger’s among economists and the call to reform the discipline raises the question, how to raise the level of social awareness? On a personal level, I highly recommend the work of Erving Goffman, the pioneering sociologist who studied face-to-face and other immediate forms of interaction. His books on micro-norms and the nuances of language and bodily expression offer a virtual how-to manual for Aspies trying to shore up their social skills. It’s painless, too, because he does it in the context of highly analytical, abstracted discourses on institutions, roles and expectations. For a fuller run-down, see this fine appreciation by Daniel Little at Understanding Society.


Ken Houghton said...

Thank you; now I don't have to write this post.

rosserjb@jmu.edu said...

Vernon Smith went public sometime ago that he has been formally diagnosed as having Asperger's. Tyler Cowen was identified in some article about him as being a possible Aspie, and has on Marginal Revolution effectively said that it is probably true, although he has never been diagnosed as such. Quite a few of us at least have some tendencies in that direction, if not necessarily full-blown outright.

Anonymous said...

Tyler Cowen's "Create Your Own Economy" is an autism pride parade in book form.

While I generally like the idea of different kinds people learning from each other, the GMU crowd seems to be promoting a kind of New Libertarian man. Just look at Robin Hanson's blog "Overcoming Bias." The idea is that you're supposed to act more homo economicus and less like homo sapiens. It's a neat trick: if feelings like fairness, equality, solidarity, and community are invalidated, while self-interest is preserved, then libertarian political program is correct.

Ben Leet said...

This is Planet Asperger. I never realized it before. I loved Glen Gould for several years, especially his version of the Italian Concerto. He could fit perfectly into certain niches of the academic world, maybe serve as governor on the Federal Reserve Bank. Conducting long one-on-one monologues with himself without much awareness of his audience -- fits the description of many normal bloggers, commentators, economists. I could go on and on . . . One percent of the society's households receive more annual income than 60 percent, very Asperger. (According to E. Saez, professor at U.C. Berkeley, Striking It Richer) I remember one Asperger woman asking her mother to explain a joke, asking what was funny. I suspect she also has to ask, what was sad. Very normal Asperger economist behavior.

Eva Martin said...

I dont really agree with your etiology. I would say that the main motivation is anxiety, because economic stress has a much deeper impact on an autistic persons mind than on a neurotypic one. I will never forget how truly frightened economic cycle modeller Michael Burda sounded when stating that it was this the oil crises of the 70s what had raised his interest in economy. Burda is btw one of the bete noire of one main proponent of the Post-Autistic Economy Movement in Germany. People on the spectrum have an often acute sense for the anxieties and rages of others, and as they lack the cognitive empathy to see that most people can keep their emotions in check quite easily (some of them might also have had negative experiences with their parents), they have much bigger fears than I and other NTs have when being confronted with the same phenomena (see also Adam Smith e.a., The Empathy Imbalance Hypothesis of Autism).

Sure I would say that studying economics is for many Aspergers like studying society in a way that seems more accessible to them: numbers in particular and reductionist models of human behavior.But their true motivation is the wish to develop a confidence in the social and in humankind that they know NTs have.

As for their strong strive for a balance,it is on the one hand their lack of being able to stand conflict. People who cant understand the reason for a conflict very well, who often get into conflicts all of a sudden, without knowing how they could have prevented it,or emotionally cushioned it, prefer to avoid conflicts or to negate them. Then there is a deeper understanding of balance in physics and in nature, and the (right) feeling that such a balance must be also at stake in the biosocial sphere, and that it is fundamentally linked to their own condition.

I have explored these ideas mostly in English and in a rather associative way on https://www.pinterest.com/gertrud4617/autism-we-need-to-talk-about-thilo-sarrazin-und-se/