Rational vs Intuition

Thinking Outside The Box

According to a recent research funded by the Wellcome Trust published in October 2008, people with autism-related disorders are less likely to make irrational decisions, and are less influenced by gut instincts.   This study adds to the growing body of research implicating altered emotional processing in autism.

Decision-making is a complex process, involving both intuition and analysis.  Analysis involves computation and more “rational” thought, but is slower.  Intuition, by contrast, is much faster, but less accurate, relying on heuristics, or “gut instincts”.

Framing Effect

In this study, the researchers used the “framing effect” to study decision-making in people with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). 
The so called “framing effect” goes like this:

If a surgeon who tells a patient that there is an 80% chance of surviving an operation is more likely to gain consent than one who tells the patient there is a 20% chance of dying, even though statistically these mean the same thing.   Therefore, depends on how you frame the question, the people may response or answer it differently.

The Study

Participants in the study performed a task involving deciding whether or not to gamble with a sum of money. For example, they would be given £50 and be presented with two options: option A was to keep £20; option B was to gamble, with a 40% chance of keeping the full £50 and a 60% chance of losing everything. This version was known as the “gain frame”.

At other times, the participants would be presented with the “loss frame”, the only difference being that option A was phrased in terms of losing money. In other words, when given £50, option A was to lose £30 of their initial amount; option B was the same as above.

The Outcome

Despite option A being essentially the same in both gain and loss frames, the researchers found that the “control” participants – those without ASD – were more likely to gamble if the first option was to “lose” rather than “keep” money.

For participants with ASD, this effect was much smaller, suggesting that this latter group was less susceptible to the framing effect – in other words, they were less likely to be guided by their emotions into making inconsistent or irrational choices.

What Does it means?

The research mainly shows that autism-related people are less susceptible to the framing effect and they are using rational thinking more than intuition.

 They are more rational in thinking which is based on facts and information presented to them before making a decision.  The tendency not to based on irrelevant contextual information leads them  to make lesser inconsistent or illogical choices.

“People with autism tended to be more consistent in their pattern of choices, their greater attention to detail perhaps helping them avoid being swayed by their emotions,” says Dr Neil Harrison.


Although this attention to detail and a reduced influence of emotion during decision-making is beneficial in some situations, it may be a handicap in daily life.  During social interactions a lot of information must be processed simultaneously, making this a very complicated computational task for the brain. To solve these complex problems we rely on simplifying heuristics – gut instincts – rather than extensive logical reasoning.  

The need to proceed information on a fly especially during emergency or critical situation may be a challenge in certain cases.

“Less reliance on gut instincts by people with autism may underlie their difficulties in social situations, but also enable them to avoid potentially irrelevant emotional information and make more consistent choices.”  explains Dr Benedetto De Martino.


The study reinforces previous research suggesting that the key difference in how people with ASD make decisions may lie in the amygdala, an area of the brain critically involved in processing emotions. In people with ASD, the amygdala has been shown to differ from that in the majority of people – not in size, but in the density of nerve cells.

Dr Harrison believes their research may play an important role in highlighting the strengths of people with ASD, rather that focusing on negative aspects of the disorder.

“Our research shows a positive strength in people with autism, more research focusing on abilities as well as disabilities of people with autism will enable us to gain a clearer understanding of this condition while simultaneously assisting people with autism in living rich and full lives.”

My Opinion

Everyone has his own preference of thinking and at times, situation and circumstances, forces us to think based on rational or intuition.   This research suggest that the positive strength of our children is on rational thinking.   I have also pointed out the “Cons” of being such.   By understanding what are our children’s preference will help us to understand the reason of making a particular choice better.   And it also helps us to “patch” up the weakness of the rational thinking by introducing elements of “guts feelings”, intuition and surprise in their thinking process.


No comments yet. Why don’t you start the discussion?

    Leave a Reply