The authors used a task called the Beauty Contest game. It’s deceptively simple. You’re told that a large group of people will each pick one number from 1 to 100. Whoever picks the number closest to 2/3 the value of the mean guess is the winner.
So consider why this is a theory of mind task.
- One possibility is that a player will say to himself “this is complicated, I have no idea how to be strategic, so I’ll pick a random number between 1 and 100. Call this a “0th order” player.
- A 1st order player assumes that others will be 0th order players. They will choose randomly, so the mean of their choices will be 50, so the 1st order player chooses a value of 2/3*50 or 33.
- A 2nd order player assumes that some of the other players will be 0th order, but some will figure out how to be 1st order players, and will choose numbers accordingly. The 2nd order players chooses her number according to how many 1st order and how many 0th order players she expects to be among her opponents.
- A 3rd order player assumes some other players will be 2nd order, as well as 1st and 0th order…and in principle it can continue from there.
You can see how this theory of mind task is recursive. You might start by asking “what will my opponent think?” They you can ask “will my opponent guess what I’m thinking he’ll think?” and so on. You can also see that thinking through what others might do leads you to pick a lower number.
(It’s called the Beauty Contest because the idea was first forwarded by John Maynard Keynes in the form of a newspaper beauty contest, where entrants were to select the six most attractive faces from 100 pictures, with the best pickers getting a prize. Keynes pointed out that entrants might simply pick the ones they thought most attractive, but their choices might also be informed by what they thought others would do.)
Pantelis & Kennedy first gave this task to 250 undergraduates; each was also asked to complete the Autism-Spectrum Quotient questionnaire (AQ), which is meant to measure sub-clinical personality traits consistent with autism. There was no correlation between guesses and scores on the AQ.
There is also a method of estimating the “depth” of recursive thinking in a large group of subjects. The experimenters separated the 250 subjects into those scoring relatively high on the AQ and those scoring relatively low. They observed no difference in the depth of recursive thinking in the two groups.
More telling, experiment 2 tested 30 adults with autism or Asperger’s, all of whom were described as high-functioning and of typical to high intelligence (as measured by a standard IQ test). The researchers observed no difference between this group and typical controls in the mean number guessed, nor in the model’s estimate of the depth of theory-of-mind thinking.
The researchers are appropriately cautious in drawing conclusions from this research. As they note, theory of mind is complex and it’s easy to believe that it has multiple components. The beauty contest likely taps just one. Then too, autism spectrum disorder is likely complex, with a constellation of abilities and challenges which may vary considerably from person to person. And that is perhaps the main point of this experiment: the simple characterization: “autism is mainly a theory of mind problem” won’t do.