Against the “extreme male brain” model of autism

Simon Baron-Cohen has been pushing the extreme male brain theory of autism for a while. It asserts:

[…] ‘Empathising’is the drive to identify another person’s emotions and thoughts, and to respond to these with
an appropriate emotion. […] ‘Systemising’is the drive to analyse the variables in a system, to derive the underlying rules that govern the behaviour of a system. […]


I will be arguing that systemising and empathising are two key dimensions in defining the male and female brain. […]

[…] According to the ‘extreme male brain’ theory of autism, people with autism or AS should always fall in the [extreme systematizing range]. […]


So in other words, it is the proposal that systematizing, maleness, and autism are near-identical, and that empathising, femaleness, and non-autism are near-identical.

The main problem with this theory is that it is obviously empirically disproven. For instance, in one study that is often cited to support it, Testing the Empathizing-Systemizing theory of sex differences and the Extreme Male Brain theory of autism in half a million people, they get the result:

And sure – there was a difference between the groups in the direction predicted by the theory. But look at the magnitude of the difference. It’s nowhere near as big as the theory claims; there’s tons and tons of overlap between the groups.

We can also take a look at table 3 in the study. The extreme male brain theory predicts that autistic people should always fall in the “extreme systematizing” area, yet only ~10% of autistic people end up there, with almost half of all autistic people ending up outside of the systematizing-skewed region.

In conclusion, E-S EMB theory of autism does not add up.

EMB Motte-Bailey

If it were any other theory, the effect sizes might be considered respectable. There’s no rule of science that an effect has to fully separate the groups under investigation to be relevant. Some discussions of science get hijacked by identity politics, where people refuse to acknowledge an effect, just because it’s not “big enough” according to their subjective judgement.

However, EMB isn’t just the theory that autistic people are more prone to systematizing than non-autistic people. Rather, it is a theory that this empathisizing-systematizing shift is the core defining feature of autism. That’s a perfectly valid theory to have, but it makes it necessary for them to be highly correlated to be true. After all, if autism is the same thing as a systematizing skew, then how can people be autistic without having this skew, or be non-autistic while having the skew?

Sometimes EMB proponents say that this isn’t really what the EMB theory says. Instead, they make up some weaker predictions, that the theory merely asserts differences “on average”. This seems like a motte-bailey strategy; they want to talk big about how empathizing-systematizing is the explanation for autism, but they don’t want to actually commit to the theory (because it is wrong). If the EMB theory had instead been named the “sometimes autistic people are kinda nerdy” theory, then it would be a lot more justified by the evidence – but also not look nearly as deep or insightful, which is presumably why it wasn’t named as such.

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