Looking and thinking: how individuals with Williams syndrome make judgements about mental states

Hanley, Mary, Riby, Deborah M., Caswell, Stephen, Rooney, Sinead and Back, Elisa (2013) Looking and thinking: how individuals with Williams syndrome make judgements about mental states. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 34(12), pp. 4466-4476. ISSN (print) 0891-4222


Individuals with the neuro-developmental disorder Williams syndrome (WS) are characterised by a combination of features which makes this group vulnerable socially, including mild-moderate cognitive difficulties, pro-social drive, and indiscriminate trust. The purpose of this study was to explore a key socio-communicative skill in individuals with WS, namely, mental state recognition abilities. We explored this skill in a detailed way by looking at how well individuals with WS recognise complex everyday mental states, and how they allocate their attention while making these judgements. Participants with WS were matched to two typically developing groups for comparison purposes, a verbal ability matched group and a chronological age matched group. While eye movements were recorded, participants were shown displays of eight different mental states in static and dynamic form, and they performed a forced-choice judgement on the mental state. Mental states were easier to recognise in dynamic form rather than static form. Mental state recognition ability for individuals with WS was poorer than expected by their chronological age, and at the level expected by their verbal ability. However, the pattern of mental state recognition for participants with WS varied according to mental state, and we found some interesting links between ease/difficulty recognising some mental states (worried/do not trust) and the classic behavioural profile associated with WS (high anxiety/indiscriminate trust). Furthermore, eye tracking data revealed that participants with WS allocated their attention atypically, with less time spent attending the information from the face regions. This challenges the widely held understanding of WS being associated with prolonged face and eye gaze, and indicates that there is more heterogeneity within this disorder in terms of socio-perception than previous reports would suggest.

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