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Title: The effect of social presence on social cognition in autistic and neurotypical adults
Author: Morgan, Emma J.
ISNI:       0000 0004 8509 2820
Awarding Body: University of Sheffield
Current Institution: University of Sheffield
Date of Award: 2019
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Humans are remarkably sensitive to the behaviour of our social partners. This skill allows an understanding of the preferences and mental states of others, and is thought to arise from theory-of-mind (ToM) processing. However, individuals with an autism spectrum diagnosis typically show difficulties in ToM processing, and are thought to be less sensitive to detecting social behaviours. Sensitivity to social stimuli is critical to the development of adaptive social behaviours and our behaviour is frequently influenced by those around us, yet the majority of social cognition research is conducted using paradigms where there is no social partner physically present. The aim of this PhD was therefore to investigate the effect of a social presence, whether real or implied, on cognitive tasks in both neurotypical and autistic adults. Study 1 aimed to investigate whether autistic adults are sensitive to social agency. This study used a prediction task featuring an animated cue (a red dot). The agency of the cue was manipulated across two parts of the study; in the first part it was described as a computer algorithm, and in the second as representing the eye movements of another participant. Both neurotypical and autistic participants were significantly more accurate at the prediction task when they believed the cue represented the eye movements of another participant. This therefore demonstrates that autistic participants showed a social facilitation effect, and were strongly influenced by the perception of a cue as social. Studies 2, 3a and 3b aimed to investigate whether the physical presence of a social partner influences a participant’s ability to track intentions during a mentalising task. Study 2 used a first-order theory of mind task with neurotypical adults; Studies 3a and 3b used a more challenging second-order theory of mind task. Study 3a recruited neurotypical adults, whereas study 3b tested adults with a diagnosis of an autism spectrum condition. Both studies aimed to test implicit and explicit mentalising behaviour across two conditions: live, where the task protagonists were physically present acting out the task, or recorded, where the same task protagonists were depicted in a video recording. Across all three studies, the results revealed that implicit mentalising is highly sensitive to a real-time social presence, with both neurotypical and autistic participants performing significantly better when the protagonists were live than presented in a pre- recorded video. Taken together, these studies clearly demonstrate the importance of acknowledging social presence as a crucial factor in our understanding of social cognition in neurotypical and clinical populations.
Supervisor: Freeth, Megan ; Carroll, Daniel J. Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available