The Link Between Computer Hackers And Asperger's Syndrome Is A Myth

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Are computer hackers more likely to be on the autistic spectrum than other people?Bernadette Schell, a researcher at the  University of Ontario Institute of Technology, has spent 10 years surveying attendees at hacker conferences like Black Hat and Defcon with the goal of understanding hacker psychology, reports Violet Blue on CNET:

“[Schell wanted] to see if perceptions about hackers—[that they are more likely to have] Asperger’s Syndrome, or that mal-inclined hackers are cognitively and/or behaviorally ‘different’ from adults functioning in mainstream society—are true. Schell and her co-researchers focused on the perception of hackers as ‘strange’ and examined hacker conference attendees’ self-reported Autism-spectrum Quotient (AQ) predispositions.

Asperger’s syndrome is characterised by dysfunctional forms of social skill under-development (lack of empathy is a biggie; the inability to imagine what another person might be feeling), communication difficulties, and obsessive interests. It includes positive traits such as high intelligence, exceptional focus, and specific unique talents, including creative pursuits.

[Schell’s] findings showed that about two-thirds of the hackers had AQ scores in the intermediate range, with more [male respondents] scoring in the higher range.

The researchers wrote:

‘Considering that the hacker conference attendees’ overall group mean AQ score placed in the intermediate area of the autism spectrum, it seems reasonable to conclude that the bulk of the hacker respondents’ thinking and behaving patterns are seemingly not very different from those choosing careers in computer science, mathematics, and the physical sciences.’

Essentially, the results were middle-ground, with no push toward one extreme of Asperger’s prevalence one way or the other. With these results, saying that most hackers are ‘on the spectrum’ would be a mischaracterization.

The Hacker Attendee study concluded:

‘In short, the dark myth perpetuated in the media that the majority of hackers attending hacker conventions are motivated by revenge, reputation enhancement, and personal financial gain at the expense of others was simply not supported by the data collected.

Instead, apart from tending not to read others’ body language cues very easily, the majority of hackers attending conferences seem to feel that this personal liability can be compensated by their keen ability to focus on details in creative ways not commonly found in the general population.’

I think the practical conclusion here is that hackers have complicated gifts.” Read more here.

Really fascinating study. I’m sure if you examined any group of professionals who share a specialised culture and expertise (surgeons, pilots, army sergeants) you’d find very distinctive predilections within each group. We need people who are willing to be different and even “strange” in the intense pursuit of what they’re good at and what they’re interested in.

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