Divergent roles of autistic and alexithymic traits in utilitarian moral judgments in adults with autism
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Description: This study investigated hypothetical moral choices in adults with high-functioning autism and the role of empathy and alexithymia in such choices. We used a highly emotionally salient moral dilemma task to investigate autistics’ hypothetical moral evaluations about personally carrying out harmful utilitarian behaviours aimed at maximizing welfare. Results showed that they exhibited a normal pattern of moral judgments despite the deficits in social cognition and emotional processing. Further analyses revealed that this was due to mutually conflicting biases associated with autistic and alexithymic traits after accounting for shared variance: (a) autistic traits were associated with reduced utilitarian bias due to elevated personal distress of demanding social situations, while (b) alexithymic traits were associated with increased utilitarian bias on account of reduced empathic concern for the victim. Additionally, autistics relied on their non-verbal reasoning skills to rigidly abide by harm-norms. Thus, utilitarian moral judgments in autism were spared due to opposite influences of autistic and alexithymic traits and compensatory intellectual strategies. These findings demonstrate the importance of empathy and alexithymia in autistic moral cognition and have methodological implications for studying moral judgments in several other clinical populations.