The social motivation theory of autism

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articleContributedpeer-review


  • Coralie Chevallier - , University of Pennsylvania (Author)
  • Gregor Kohls - , University of Pennsylvania (Author)
  • Vanessa Troiani - , University of Pennsylvania (Author)
  • Edward S. Brodkin - , University of Pennsylvania (Author)
  • Robert T. Schultz - , University of Pennsylvania (Author)


The idea that social motivation deficits play a central role in Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) has recently gained increased interest. This constitutes a shift in autism research, which has traditionally focused more intensely on cognitive impairments, such as theory-of-mind deficits or executive dysfunction, and has granted comparatively less attention to motivational factors. This review delineates the concept of social motivation and capitalizes on recent findings in several research areas to provide an integrated account of social motivation at the behavioral, biological and evolutionary levels. We conclude that ASD can be construed as an extreme case of diminished social motivation and, as such, provides a powerful model to understand humans' intrinsic drive to seek acceptance and avoid rejection.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)231-239
Number of pages9
JournalTrends in cognitive sciences
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2012
Externally publishedYes

External IDs

PubMedCentral PMC3329932
Scopus 84859100043
WOS 000302975700011
PubMed 22425667



  • High-functioning autism, Spectrum disorder, Joint attention, Eye contact, Prefrontal cortex, Children, Amygdala, Faces, Adolescents, Cooperation