Anyway, the article begins thusly:
How do we think about the intentional nature of actions? And how do people with an impaired mindreading capacity think about it?
Consider the following probes:
The Free-Cup Case
Joe was feeling quite dehydrated, so he stopped by the local smoothie shop to buy the largest sized drink available. Before ordering, the cashier told him that if he bought a Mega-Sized Smoothie he would get it in a special commemorative cup. Joe replied, ‘I don't care about a commemorative cup, I just want the biggest smoothie you have.' Sure enough, Joe received the Mega-Sized Smoothie in a commemorative cup. Did Joe intentionally obtain the commemorative cup?
The Extra-Dollar Case
Joe was feeling quite dehydrated, so he stopped by the local smoothie shop to buy the largest sized drink available. Before ordering, the cashier told him that the Mega-Sized Smoothies were now one dollar more than they used to be. Joe replied, ‘I don't care if I have to pay one dollar more, I just want the biggest smoothie you have.' Sure enough, Joe received the Mega-Sized Smoothie and paid one dollar more for it. Did Joe intentionally pay one dollar more?
Curious, I mentally recorded my responses to both scenarios before checking to see what a given response set actually supposedly meant.
(Try it yourself if you like - scroll down when you've decided on your responses)
After presenting the scenarios, the article continues:
You surely think that paying an extra dollar was intentional, while getting the commemorative cup was not. So do most people (Machery, 2008).
Now that surprised me. Not only because of the presumption of what the reader "surely" thinks, but because, well, I didn't actually think paying the dollar was intentional, while getting the cup was not.
As I read the descriptions of both scenarios, it seemed clear to me that Joe's intention in either case was to acquire the largest available smoothie.
Hence, I answered "No" both to the question of whether he intentionally obtained the commemerative cup, and to the question of whether he intentionally paid an extra dollar.
And...apparently, according to the authors, this is actually the predicted "autistic" response:
But Tiziana Zalla and I have found that if you had Asperger Syndrome, a mild form of autism, your judgments would be very different: You would judge that paying an extra-dollar was not intentional, just like getting the commemorative cup (Zalla and Machery ms).
Leaving aside diagnostic category nitpicking for the moment, and noting that I don't think a person's responses to the smoothie scenarios are definitively diagnostic of anything, the above quoted statement does apply in my case, and apparently applied for a significant percentage of autistic study participants.
That said, I am really having a hard time seeing how "mindreading" has anything to do with how a person processes the scenario. I strongly suspect that this is more a matter of how a person processes language. It makes sense that in a language-based task, you're going to get trends in how autistic and nonautistic people respond, but very rarely do I see this being examined -- it's a lot more common to see people hypothesizing about "Theory of Mind deficits" and whatnot in response to findings such as this.
When I read the scenarios, I mapped them both something like this:
- Joe wants A.
- In order to get A, Joe must accept B.
- Joe really wants A, so he accepts B.
As far as I'm concerned, it doesn't matter what "B" is -- in either case, it's a condition Joe must accept in order to get the thing he wants. Hence, while Joe is going to end up with B (whether it be a fancy cup or a wallet one dollar lighter), it cannot be said that he went to the smoothie counter intending to get a fancy cup or pay an extra dollar. He went there to get the biggest smoothie they had, and that's what he got.
Now, if you asked instead, "Was Joe responsible for the act of acquiring the commemorative cup or spending the extra dollar?", I would say "Yes" -- for both cases.
While (as I stated above), I don't see Joe as having intended to accept the extra condition, it was still his "fault" that he ended up with the special cup / paid an extra dollar.
He could have, after all, decided the cup was really ugly to the point where he chose a different drink entirely in order to avoid it. He could have decided he didn't want to pay an extra dollar after all, and compromised with a smaller smoothie (or again, a different drink).
So in both cases, he was responsible for what he actually ended up with, as he knew the parameters of the situation going in, and chose accordingly. But that does not mean, by my assessment, that he intended to acquire the cup or spend the dollar; those were just "side effects".
This is where I think the language stuff is probably coming into play. I am guessing that many people are probably equating "Joe intentionally acquired B" with "Joe was responsible for acquiring B", whereas I make a distinction between those two assertions. Not a moral distinction, mind you, but a linguistic/conceptual one. But (at least based on many of the comments attached to the article), it seems that if someone doesn't make such a distinction, they may in turn judge "passive" actions (Joe accepts the commemorative cup) as distinct from "active" actions (Joe hands over an extra dollar).
And...none of this seems to have any bearing whatsoever on whether someone is "seeing things from Joe's point of view". For one thing, we don't know hardly anything about Joe, except for the fact that he wants a large smoothie, and wants it badly. For another thing, he's a fictional character in a story problem, not a three-dimensional human being or animal (and, yes, contrary to stereotypes, I do like fiction and can relate to some fictional characters -- but they have to be fleshed out somewhat better than Joe).
So, again, there's definitely some language weirdness going on in the presumptions about this problem. The only thing I see as passingly relevant to "theory of mind" seems to be the inherent presumption that people will, in the absence of knowing much of anything about Joe aside from his smoothie hankering, project their own default mental maps onto him and determine his intentions on that basis.
I was surprised to learn, for instance, that some people who read the problem saw the receipt of the commemorative cup as a "bonus" of some kind, and that this figured into there intentionality assessment. Personally when I saw the phrase "commemorative cup" I pictured some annoying gaudy thing I probably wouldn't want, and so if I were going to project anything onto Joe, it would be my own irritation with florid promotional items. But I didn't do that, because, well, I'm not Joe.
Additionally, the first time I read through the problem (before reading any interpretations or responses from other people) I had a distinct impression of Joe's "intentions" as being the intention he had when he entered the store to buy the large smoothie. The other variables that came up were simply irrelevant; the fact that there were now one or more conditions attached to the acquisition of the large smoothie didn't change the reason Joe had entered the store in the first place. So I guess I attached some kind of temporality to Joe's intentions, in addition to interpreting the language used in the problem the way I've described.
I'm very curious to know how other folks interpret scenarios like this. Again, I do NOT take this very seriously, least of all as a diagnostic instrument -- but I do think the discussions surrounding this sort of thing are quite illuminating when it comes to the assumptions that tend to get made about autistic cognition, language use, and human cognition in general.
EDIT: This post (which is actually linked at the bottom of the "Intentional Action and Asperger Syndrome" article) seems to concur with the assertion that language interpretation issues are probably a primary factor in how people respond to questions like those in the smoothie problem.