Research Lead: January-February 2014

Social Recognition in Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Genetic Investigation

[Neuroscience and Clinical Psychology]

Many scientists view a deficiency in the ability to recognize faces as a major component in social interaction disorders, such as those on the autism-spectrum. Previous research has shown that mammals identify members of their own species using social recognition cues; for rodents odor cues, and for primates visual cues. Previous research has also pointed to a specific receptor, the oxytocin receptor, as key for social recognition in rodents. Now, in a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Skuse and colleagues implicated the oxytocin receptor as critical for face recognition in humans. The authors recruited 198 Finnish and British families, who all had at least one child diagnosed with high-functioning autism, and tested each family member’s ability to: remember faces, discriminate facial emotions, and detect “direction of gaze.” Then, using a saliva sample, the authors analyzed genetic variation in the oxytocin receptor for each participant in order to understand if genetic differences in the receptor were associated with diminished social recognition ability. The authors found that high performance on the social recognition tasks was associated with normal genetic expression of the oxytocin receptor, while a specific genetic variation in the receptor, found in one-third of the participants, was associated with decreased performance. These findings implicate a specific genetic variant of the oxytocin receptor in social recognition disorders—in this case autism—as well as suggest that the gene encoding the oxytocin receptor plays an important role in human face recognition.

Sacrificing Ethics to Achieve Money and Status, a Gender Difference

Underrepresentation of women in high-paying, executive positions within the business sector is a widely-recognized, though stubbornly persistent, phenomenon. Whereas much past research into the source of this disparity emphasizes external barriers such as stereotypes, social roles, and backlash, more recent research has focused on how women’s own perceptions and choices lead them away from such positions. Kennedy and Kray add to this alternative current by examining how women’s perceptions of ethical compromises might disincline them to pursue careers that are often expected to make such tradeoffs.

In a series of three experiments, the researchers found that women reported more moral outrage than men when presented with scenarios detailing ethical compromise for business gains, such as achieving company goals and increased profits. Similarly, though women did not indicate less baseline interest in business jobs than men, they expressed less interest when the positions involved such compromise, and showed stronger implicit associations between “business” and “immorality” than male participants. Kennedy and Kray also introduced a new factor to the literature by examining the role of “social status as a driver of ethical compromise.”

In conjunction with past research, the authors indicate that such results should not be seen as reason for women to avoid the business sector; instead, they suggest women’s advancement is an opportunity to bring business practices closer in line with social morality on a broad scale.  At any rate, it is becoming increasingly apparent that shattering the infamous “glass ceiling” is not just a matter of lifting women up for their own sake.