Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Faux Pas Recognition

There is a faux pas recognition test used for diagnosing Autism Spectrum Disorders. No, really. And it's apparently pretty good. There is both a children's version and an adult version. They are interesting to read. Social situations are described, and the subject is asked if anyone said or did anything awkward. In some situations there is a faux pas, in others there is none. The diagnosis is not made from the True-False score, but from the questions based on the subject's response.
Developed by Simon Baron-Cohen (and others), autism expert at Trinity College in Oxford and author of popular books on the subject, Mindblindness and The Essential Difference: Mail and Female Brains and Autism, the test is slowly coming into use.

You wonder if you recognise the name? Yes, Simon is the cousin of comedian Sasha Baron-Cohen. The whole family seems to be rather accomplished. I think that the irony is amusing, and not quite accidental. Borat's psychologist cousin develops a diagnostic test based around faux pas. Very nice.


Roy Lofquist said...

I read through the questions then looked at the answers. I think that the test is prone to bad results due to cultural nuances as to what is a faux pas, e.g. the cancer story. Since the chances of walking into a meeting where that kind of announcement is very small then I do not consider it to be a faux pas. However, if the joke were in poor taste no matter what the circumstance then it is.

The same for some of the other stories. If what was said was rude or in poor taste I thought it a faux pas. If it was something inappropriate because of an unknown circumstance then not.

I am certainly not trying to justify my own interpretations. I am trying to point out that the meaning of faux pas is not precise and there are many different views as to what is or isn't. Therefore the unreliability of the results.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I agree that faux pas is more often used in a slightly different sense. The test measures an ability to recognise awkward situations - not quite the same thing.

Still, psychologists need PR too, and Awkwardness Scale isn't going to play in Peoria.

Roy Lofquist said...

Dear Assistant,

I have some passing acquaintance of the field. Really, in 65 years you tend to run into all kinds of things.

I am certainly not critical of the people who are drawn to study the vagaries of the human condition. It is the most difficult of subjects.

If I have a criticism of these efforts it is that there is a dichotomy whose lines have been obscured. We are informed by philosophy, religion and science that each person is unique. Yet we, as is our won't, seek to categorize to reduce complexity to understandable dimensions.

I believe that the only useful major distinction that has a basis in practicality is between those who are able to function in society and those who can't.

In the former we either imprison or treat the condition with pharmaceuticals.

For the latter we must recognize the inherent uniqueness of each.

Attempts to identify and classify people by metrics may be intellectually satisfying but are empty in that the results are not prescriptive. It is pernicious in that these kind of inquiries lead to an attempt to find cookie cutter solutions and apply them to individuals.

The slicing and dicing of people is logically and philosophically equivalent to racism. tribalism, eugenics,...

I have known some extremely effective psychiatrists and psychologists who do help people. Some of them used standard screening tests to point them to a possible line of inquiry. But only as a possible starting point in their endeavor.

I guess my major lament is that these kind of activities lead to "Pop Psychology". This leads people to make snap judgments of others based upon "science".

We are all frail. We need others. Categorizing people gets in the way.


karrde said...


In an eerie piece of coincidence, I just spent a week reading the sci-fi novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, (with a night watching Bladerunner, loosely based on said book).

One of the plot points in both book and movie is that there are humans and android/artificial-human constructs. A psychological test like the one described for autism is used to help determine the difference between human and android.

The book at least hinted that the tests might turn up strange results for true humans with autism, or other psychological traits on the tail end of the bell-curve.

The novel does raise questions about what is normal in humans, as well as the troubling ethical questions of how humanity deals with its own creations, the androids.

At the very least, such stories underline that one of the unifying aspects of human culture is a set of common beliefs about what is normal, and what is diseased in the human psyche. Any person who wanders too far from the normal will be punished by the society in some way.

(En passant, this observation can be made absent any judgement about the good or evil of particular manifestations of culture...)

With respect to autism, I don't know what to say. Is it a condition which is binary (either exists or doesn't), or is it a condition on a sliding scale (like the obsessive-compulsive scale you've mentioned before)?

It is easy for me to have an opinion, but it would likely be an opinion based on ignorance.

Roy Lofquist said...

Dear karrde,

Philip K. Dick, 1968. Read it when it came out. Us old fogeys know lots of things. PKD is one of the best. Try John Brunner. Probably the most prescient sci-fi writer ever.

As to the subject of androids. A very rich device in some of the best sci-fi/fantasy ever written. Sadly, I don't think we will ever see them. I was in the computer business for forty years. They've been talking about artificial intelligence ever since I can remember. Much progress has been made in pattern recognition. Flies are very good at that. I have never seen any theory or proposal that leads us to what we call abstract reason. The Japanese spent $5 billion on a concept called Prolog. Came to naught.

After pondering the question of human essence for 60 years I believe that we have a soul. It is mysterious beyond our comprehension. But then, much of creation is beyond our comprehension. I like it like that.


Assistant Village Idiot said...

Autism is along a spectrum in its manifestations - whether that means there are a series of genetic on/off switches or just a few, interacting with prenatal and early environments is unknown. Asperger Syndrome is considered an Autism Spectrum Disorder.

It is a slippery area. What requires "treatment" is very much up to the individual, but that is complicated by parental decisions and how rigidly a society enforces its norms. At the extreme tails of a bell curve, it is often a social survival problem regardless of the trait measured. But just a little ways back to the mean, what is an advantage and what is a disadvantage? Some things, such as height, can be advantages which outweigh the cost. A lot of Aspergery people do well in technical fields, find mates who mostly understand, and have enjoyable lives. Others have failure to launch.

I have a general opinion that it is good to have a few things to overcome in life. Problems arise when the list of things that must be adapted to grows too long.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Roy - nice comment over at Riehl World View today.

Anonymous said...

This isn't used to diagnose autism. It's a research tool, not a diagnostic tool.

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