(postscript added July-Aug 2011, small edit made Feb 2012)
A quote from pages 162-163 of the Penguin paperback edition of the 2003 pop psychology book The Essential Difference by Prof. Simon Baron-Cohen:
"Sally and I decided it would be good to try to get some quantitative measures of his social understanding and degree of autistic traits, so we asked him to take the "Reading the Mind in the Eyes" Test. Richard scored 25 out of 36. People typically score on average 30 out of 36, so Richard's score was significantly lower than one would have expected."
"Richard" in this quote is the Fields Medal-winning mathematician Richard Borcherds, whose diagnostic consultation with Professor Baron-Cohen to see if he had Asperger syndrome was written about in detail in the book. In the book it is not clear whether or not a clinical diagnosis was made; Baron-Cohen referring to Borcherds as "an example of someone whose AS has not been an obstacle to achievement in his adult life...", but later stating that "he is not currently severe enough in his symptoms to warrant a diagnosis in adulthood...." The Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test is a test that was developed by the Autism Research Centre of the University of Cambridge, which has Baron-Cohen as a Director.
Here is a quote from page 18 of the Icon Books paperback edition of the 2010 feminist pop psychology book Delusions of Gender by Dr Cordelia Fine:
"In the Austrian study, women scored higher than men on the Reading the Mind from the Eyes test. However, the difference was small: women, on average, correctly guessed 23 of the 36 items; men, 22."
Dr Fine was not referring to sick or abnormal men and women here, she was discussing men and women in general, and the study that she cited as the source of these figures was a large study (n=423) of "the general population" of Austria, that was published in 2006. So, the findings of the Austrian study, as reported by Fine, appear to show that a normal score on the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test (RMET) is much lower than that claimed by Prof. Baron-Cohen back in 2003. The study was a large one, so the findings should be fairly reliable.
Things don't add up when we compare the quotes from the two different books. Baron-Cohen was most certainly wrong when he wrote that a typical, normal score on that test is 30. So far I have had a close look at eight different studies that have involved giving a normal control group the same 36-question version of the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test (RMET), and in all of those studies the normal control group's mean score was under 30. Baron-Cohen even contradicted his own research findings when he claimed in the book published in 2003 that 30 was a normal score on the 36-question RMET. A study co-authored by Prof. Baron-Cohen that was published in 2001 in an autism journal indicated that a normal score on the RMET for “general population controls” is around 26 out of 36. I have not yet been able to get a hold of the full-text of the Austrian study, but if Fine's account of the scores is correct a normal score on the RMET is nowhere near 30.
Should it be this difficult to find out what a normal score on a test is? Of course it shouldn't! A person should be able to trust a professor when he says that you have scored below normal on a test. With a score of 25 out of 36 in the RMET, and a normal score in the RMET being well under 30 and possibly as low as 22 out of 36 for men, it looks like Richard Borcherd's ability to read facial expressions in the eyes is completely normal, maybe even good, and possibly even better than the average woman's score. But Borcherds is supposed to be autistic, and autistic people are emotion-blind, aren't we? And women have super powers of emotion-reading by virtue of our hormones, don't we? [Why do I feel so confused?] So any woman should be far superior to some autistic male mathematician in a test of identifying facial expressions, surely? Well, maybe not.
Why does this matter? It matters because the idea that autistic people cannot read emotions is an article of faith and also an industry in the world of academic autism research and autism charities. The Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test has been cited as a test of empathizing, by virtue of it being regarded as a test of reading facial expressions, and this test has been used very widely in researching possible social deficits in people who have a variety of different medical or psychiatric conditions unrelated to autism. The popularity of this test (which presumably researchers have to pay a licensing fee to the ARC to use) I guess might be the result of the belief that it has been a useful and valid instrument in identifying autistic deficits. The idea that an inability to read emotions is a core deficit of autism has been widely believed and widely sold. Teaching autistic kids how to read facial expressions has been marketed as a therapy for autism, and I’m sure many parents of kids who have been given an autism diagnosis have bought products that are promoted as useful in this area believing that they are making an important investment in their child’s future wellbeing. Baron-Cohen’s Autism Research Centre has been marketing a DVD aimed at parents of autistic kids: “This BAFTA nominated children's animation features vehicles with emotions and has been shown to help children with autism improve in emotion recognition.” As Baron-Cohen has explained himself in an interview, the development of this DVD was funded by British taxpayers to the tune of half a million pounds, but the licence is now owned by the ARC. Free copies of this DVD have been distributed to UK families with autistic kids, but it is also for sale, and some of the profits are given to the autism charity Autism Speaks, which is much despised by many autistic adults and family members of autistic people. The ARC has also been marketing for a number of years a very expensive CD-ROM that features actors acting out (acted, fake, fake-looking) emotions which is supposed to be educational for autistic people. The author of this work is listed as Simon Baron-Cohen. Prof. Simon Baron-Cohen has also written a book titled Teaching Children with Autism to Mind-read which covers facial expressions.
The idea of an autistic deficit in reading facial expressions is the basis of an industry that turns over a lot of money, and when this amount of cash is sloshing around, the numbers should add up. But they don’t add up, and I’m not done with investigating this matter. So I’ll soon be jumping onto my broom and flying on down to my favourite university library to check out the full text of the Austrian study of the RMET first-hand, and I’ll let you know what I find.
P.S. July-August 2011
I've completed my meta-analysis of studies that have used the 36 item RMET on a normal control group or a normal placebo group. I have not yet found the time to write a lengthy discussion of interesting stuff that I've found, but you can see the figures that I've calculated from my findings at the article below. Yes, there is something strange about the German version of the RMET, but it is also true that a normal score on the RMET is lower than 30.
I have found that a normal score on the 36 item Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test, as created and revised by Baron-Cohen's team, is 26.03061. This would make the score in this test of the mathematician Richard Borcherds of 25 out of 36 COMPLETELY NORMAL. Does this mean that he can't really be autistic? No. I have yet to complete a similar review of studies to find out what the average score of autistic study subjects is on this test, but one figure that has been given is 21.9, which is only about four points below the mean score for non-autistic study subjects, and is certainly not evidence of a serious deficit in facial expression reading as a general feature of autism. The Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test cannot be used to diagnose autism, and it is too unreliable to use to draw any conclusions about individuals.
So, really, what is a normal score on the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test?http://incorrectpleasures.blogspot.com/2011/06/so-really-what-is-normal-score-on.html
Fine, Cordelia (2010) Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences. Icon Books, 2010.
Baron-Cohen, Simon (2003) The essential difference. Penguin Books, 2003.
Martin Voracek and Stefan G. Dressler (2006) Lack of correlation between digit ratio (2D:4D) and Baron-Cohen’s “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” test, empathy, systemising, and autism-spectrum quotients in a general population sample. Personality and Individual Differences. Volume 41, Issue 8, December 2006. P. 1481-1491.
Baron-Cohen S, Wheelwright S, Hill J, Raste Y, Plumb I.(2001) The "Reading the Mind in the Eyes" Test revised version: a study with normal adults, and adults with Asperger syndrome or high-functioning autism. Journal of Child Psychology and Child Psychiatry, and Allied Disciplines. 2001 Feb;42(2):241-51.
Reading the mind in the eyes (test)
Autism Research Centre