June 03, 2005

I'm a Systemiser, Are You?

Simon Baron-Cohen, author of Essential Difference: Men, Women and the Extreme Male Brain and director of an autism research center, wrote an article some time ago in the British newspaper, the Guardian. In it he lays out people's mental faculties on a two-dimensional map, with one axis representing a tendency towards systemisation, and the other for empathisation. From here he segues into the difference between the typical male brain (tending towards systemisation), and the female (tending towards empathising). He finishes with a special look at autism and its close cousin, Asperger's syndrome, both of which are dominated by extreme systemisers and poor empathisers.

An adjunct to the article features a pair of quizzes to determine your own place on the map. Being a natural systemiser, I took them.

Average women have a Systemising Quotient of 24, and the average male score is 30. Asperger's and the highly-functioning autistic only tend to range between 40-50. I scored a 54.

50-80 = You have a very high ability for analysing and exploring a system. [...] Three times as many people with Asperger Syndrome score in this range, compared to typical men, and almost no women score this high.

My Empathy Quotient was rather miserable, only 25.

0-32 = lower than average ability for understanding how other people feel and responding appropriately. Most people with Asperger Syndrome of high-functioning autism score about 20. on average, most women score about 47 and most men about 42.

So at least I'm more sociable than the folks with Asperger's! (As well as *very* manly.)

What seemed odd to me was the way Baron-Cohen's empathising quotient ties together two very seperate things: one's empathy and one's social skills. Let's take psychopaths as an example. They may be very charming and socially savvy individuals, but the great characteristic that defines them is a complete lack of empathy (though their social skills may be high enough that they can fake it).

I mention this because I am something of the reverse: I have a very hard time "reading" people, and feel that my social skills are sub-par. But I have no problem empathising with others, to the extent that as a child I could never sit through a whole episode of "The Greatest American Hero". It was my favorite TV show, but I would just feel so awful for the embarrassing situations in which the poor guy found himself that I'd have to leave the room.

Update: Thinking about it, there may be another problem with the empathising test, which seems to have a large number of questions around "how do you feel about your ability to do X", as opposed to the systemising test, which has more questions along the lines of "do you X?" These are very different types of questions, and may not track each other well; nor may either branch tell us much about people's actual capabilities.

Posted by jeffreyb at June 3, 2005 08:43 PM
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