The affective responses to another person’s condition depend on the ability to reflect about another’s thoughts and intentions. This is relevant also for high-functioning individuals with ASD who have considerable difficulties in reading the intentions of others. With the present study we introduce a novel paradigm to induce vicarious embarrassment as a form of social pain. We predicted that the vicarious embarrassment experiences of high-functioning individuals with ASD should specifically decline in social contexts that require reflecting on another’s intentions. Thirty-two young adults with high-functioning ASD were matched with regards to age, gender, and verbal IQ to a control group. Vicarious embarrassment was examined with previously validated stimuli describing 30 situations that elicit vicarious embarrassment in the observer. The situations manipulated whether the displayed protagonist either accidentally or intentionally transgressed a social norm in public and participants rated their vicarious embarrassment from the observer’s perspective. The ASD group showed comparable vicarious embarrassment experience in response to observing another’s accidental norm transgressions but significantly reduced vicarious embarrassment when observing another who intentionally violated socials norms. Vicarious embarrassment was significantly correlated with trait empathy in the ASD group. In complex social scenarios individuals with ASD are impaired in reporting experience of vicarious embarrassment, primarily when it is required to reflect on another’s intentions. The present study thus contributes to a better understanding of how persons with ASD are affected in the diversity of empathic processes in the social, everyday life environment they are embedded in.
Demands in reflecting about another’s motives and intentions modulate vicarious embarrassment in autism spectrum disorders. Paulus FM, Kamp-Becker I, Krach S. Res Dev Disabil. 2013 Apr;34(4):1312-21. doi: 10.1016/j.ridd.2013.01.009. Epub 2013 Feb 14.