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.