In 1969, The Who – one of the loudest and most controversial rock bands of all time – brought out their smash-hit rock opera Tommy. The lead character, Tommy, is unable to see, speak or hear – but despite these disadvantages, Tommy is able to use his personal superpower – winning at pinball – to become a superstar. As the immortal lines of the song Pinball Wizard go, “That deaf dumb and blind kid sure plays a mean pinball.” World-famous teenage activist Greta Thunberg has also gone on record to say that far from being a disadvantage, autism has made a positive difference to her life. She tweeted, “I have Asperger’s and that means I’m sometimes a bit different from the norm. And — given the right circumstances — being different is a superpower.” Today the Swedish celebrity is an inspiration to millions of differently abled teenagers around the world. Now science is revealing that autism can also be a superpower in a very different dimension – gambling.
Hot hands lose
It has often been said that when we gamble whether is be at a casino online or even at a brick and mortar casino, something odd and irrational seems to happen. For instance, a lot of people have lost a lot of money as a result of the “hot hand” fallacy – the belief that you should go big when you’re on a “winning streak”. As experienced gamblers will know, it doesn’t matter how many times in a row you win on roulette – your chances of winning are exactly the same with every spin. But when reason and faith collide, faith usually has the upper hand – people will keep on placing bets under the influence of the emotional belief that their lucky streak will continue. However, it seems that people with high-functioning autism may have less of a problem than most of us.
Weighing up the options
A study by Benedetto De Martino and his colleagues at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena found that “people with autism-related disorders are less likely to make irrational decisions, and are less influenced by gut instincts”. What this boils down to is that people with autism are more likely to make rational choices than non-autistics when deciding whether to gamble or not.
The study showed most when it comes to weighing up the options in front of them, most people are more influenced by what the options are rather than which option has the most benefit for them personally. Study participants played a game where they had two choices. Either they could make £20 out of a possible £50 or they could take the risk of losing everything and gamble for the whole amount. When they were told they could lose £30 out of £50, rather than winning £20, people were more likely to gamble.
It is well known that people with autism seem to process emotions in a different way, so the team ran the experiment on a group of 15 people with Asperger’s syndrome, also known as high-functioning autism. When these people were given the choice between a high-stakes bet and a safe bet framed as “losing £30 or gaining £20”, they were much more likely to go for the safe bet.
Commenting on this phenomenon, researcher Punit Shah said, “This indicates that people with autism use a different strategy when making decisions. Instead of using intuition and emotion like people without autism, they were not following their heart and don’t use emotional information to guide their decisions. Instead, they viewed differently framed, but numerically equivalent, options more rationally than typical people. So they gambled just as much as non-autistic people, but did so using the numerical information instead of making decisions based on how those numbers made them feel.