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Asperger's study asks: Are hackers cognitively different?

Hackers are frequently assumed to have Asperger's syndrome. Psychologists set out to see if this assumption might be true and studied HOPE and Defcon attendees over 10 years.

Hackers perceive and experience the world differently than mainstream society, for a lot of reasons. Some people have postulated those reasons may be attributed to neurological conditions, such as Asperger's Syndrome.

Other than interviews with convicted hackers (mostly young men in jail), there has been little psychological study done on hackers. This is not surprising, as anyone attempting to learn about hacker culture from the outside will always be met with a predictable wall of mistrust, misinformation, and the subculture's trademark, guarded secrecy.

That didn't dissuade Dr. Bernadette Schell, Psy.D., and her co-researchers from embarking on what became 10 years (eventually comprised of multiple studies) of surveying hacker conference attendees with the goal of understanding hacker psychology. Namely, to see if perceptions about hackers -- such as having Asperger's Syndrome, or whether mal-inclined hackers are cognitively and/or behaviorally "different" from adults functioning in mainstream society -- are true.

The bulk of Schell's studies have been recently published as Female and Male Hacker Conferences Attendees: Their Autism-Spectrum Quotient (AQ) Scores and Self-Reported Adulthood Experiences in the study collection "Corporate Hacking and Technology Driven Crime" (2011). 

Generally, 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.

Interestingly, Asperger's syndrome had been around for half a century but it wasn't until the year 2000 that The New York Times Magazine called Asperger's syndrome "the little professor syndrome."

A year later, Wired magazine labeled it "The Geek Syndrome" in an article and ran the Autism Spectrum Quotient test alongside its article. However, only case observation was given in the Wired article, with no empirical proof of its presence in the hacker population.

Still, it stuck -- and resonated. Hackers are commonly believed to have higher degrees of Asperger's than most in mainstream society, while mental health (and depression) is an acute topic in wider tech culture.

Asperger's syndrome is characterized 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.

Altogether, Schell's largest study was conducted by teams distributing eight-page surveys at Black Hat and Defcon (2005, 2006, 2007), HOPE 2006, the 2005 Executive Women's Forum for IT Security, and the 2006 IBM CASCON conference.

The researchers observed that 9 percent of attendees identified as female, yet their survey distribution focused on female attendees (and followed a strict gender binary) to place respondents' gender ratio to a nearly even skew with 49 percent male respondents and 51 percent female. 

The age range was 18 to 56; the largest reported income was $700,000, and it was noted that while females reported lower incomes than males the researchers found it significant that overall, guys preferred to work at larger companies while women preferred smaller ones. 

When asked if they felt there was equal opportunity for women and other visible minorities in both work and hacker culture, 79 percent of the males said yes -- while 38 percent of the women agreed. When asked if they had ever been victims of cyberstalking or cyberharassment, the results were surprisingly even: 24/23 percent said yes to stalking, 21/19 percent said yes to harassment (with males as the majority "yes").

The survey included the Autism-Spectrum Quotient (AQ), a 50-item set of questions. Their findings showed that about two-thirds of the hackers had AQ scores in the intermediate range, with more guys 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.

Intense World Syndrome Theory and Aspergers
According to the study, new research suggests that those labeled as Asperger's syndrome individuals may not be "unfeeling geeks" or emotionally and socially deficient.

The Intense World Theory sees the core issue in autism-spectrum disorders as not being a lack of empathy or feeling -- but instead these individuals are having a hypersensitivity-to-affective-experience issue.

Meaning, they feel "too much" in a room full of people and the information comes in too fast than can be comfortably processed. This person would combat social anxiety by focusing on details and switching attention, pulling back in a way that appears to be callous or disengaged but is actually a coping mechanism for overwhelming feelings, and choosing to hide their own.

Caveat: Data collection at a hacker conference
Before headlines distort too much of this study as the final word on hacker psychology, keep in mind that this was a very limited data set, pulled from a culture that is comprised of outsiders within a group of outsiders -- and that by and large doesn't really want to talk about itself (outside of accomplishments or sharing knowledge).

I think it's important to point out that anyone doing a study on hacker psychology is likely seeking to know a hacker's motivations.

I think that is an ambitious undertaking -- as it would be to try and understand any internally diverse, exceptionally intelligent, high-risk population. I wonder if it is even possible to measure hackers with academia's traditional tools.

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.