The study contributes to the growing body of research implicating altered emotional processing in autism.
Decision-making is a complex process, involving both intuition and analysis: analysis involves computation and more "rational" thought, but is slower; intuition, by contrast, is much faster, but less accurate, relying on heuristics, or "gut instincts".
Previous studies have shown that our response to a problem depends on how the problem is posed - the so called "framing effect".
For instance, a surgeon who tells a patient that there is an 80 percent chance of surviving an operation is more likely to gain consent than one who tells the patient there is a 20 percent chance of dying, even though statistically these mean the same thing.
Now, researchers in Professor Ray Dolan's group at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at UCL (University College London) have used the 'framing effect' to study decision-making in people with autism spectrum disorders (ASD).
Participants in the study performed a task involving deciding whether or not to gamble with a sum of money. For example, they were given 50 pounds and were presented with two options: option A was to keep 20 pounds; option B was to gamble, with a 40 percent chance of keeping the full 50 pounds and a 60 percent chance of losing everything. This version was known as the "gain frame".
At other times, the participants were presented with the "loss frame", the only difference being that option A was phrased in terms of losing money. In other words, when given 50 pounds, option A was to lose 30 pounds of their initial amount; option B was the same as above.
Despite option A being essentially the same in both gain and loss frames, the researchers found that the "control" participants - those without ASD - were more likely to gamble if the first option was to "lose" rather than "keep" money.
For participants with ASD, this effect was much smaller, suggesting that this latter group was less susceptible to the framing effect - in other words, they were less likely to be guided by their emotions into making inconsistent or irrational choices.
"People with autism tended to be more consistent in their pattern of choices, their greater attention to detail perhaps helping them avoid being swayed by their emotions," said Dr Neil Harrison.
Harrison believes their research may play an important role in highlighting the strengths of people with ASD, rather that focusing on negative aspects of the disorder.
The study is published in the Journal of Neuroscience.