Morton Ann
Gernsbacher

www.gernsbacherlab.org

people_not_puzzles25252c_melanie_yergeau-8819702

[Image: M.Remi Yergeau, a white person  

with shoulder-length blond hair, holding a sign

that has a puzzle piece image with a red slash through it

and the wording, “People not puzzles.”] 

Why was the study conducted?

They’re everywhere. On the lapels
of NCAA basketball coaches
during the Final Four. On a FOX reporter’s bowtie
during the World Series. On bumper stickers, backpacks, bracelets, beer
koozies, tote bags, and the background
of a prime-time soap opera
.

They are puzzle pieces intended to represent autism (and autistic
people
).

Symbolizing autism with a puzzle piece began with the
UK’s National Autistic Society
:

“… designed by a [non-autistic] parent
… It first appeared on our stationary and then on our newsletter in April 1963.
Our Society was the first autistic society in the world, and our puzzle piece
has … been adopted by all the autistic societies which have followed.”

The puzzle piece was chosen, as
Helen Green Allison later related
, “because it tells us something about
autism: our children are handicapped by a puzzling condition; this isolates
them from normal human contact and therefore they do not ‘fit in’.”

Evoking negativity was, therefore, the primary motivation
for using puzzle pieces to symbolize autism. In current day, many autistic and
non-autistic people (e.g., Kabie Brook, Judy Endow, Ruti
Regan
, Alyssa
Hillary
, C.
S. Wyatt
, Ed
Ised
, Autistic
Alex
, Dan
Edmunds
, M. Remi Yergeau,
Adam
Thometz
, Tim
Turner
) argue that puzzle pieces continue to evoke negativity.

However, other
people have suggested
that puzzle
pieces instead evoke positivity
or that the “positives
… outweigh the negatives
.” Therefore, in a recent study (full manuscript here and data/stimuli here) Bev Harp, Jilana Boston, Jennifer Stevenson, Adam Raimond, and I empirically
investigated whether puzzle pieces evoke negativity or positivity in the
general public.

How was the study conducted?

With a sample of
400 members of the general public, we measured both their
explicit biases and
their
implicit biases toward puzzle pieces in general and autism
puzzle piece logos in particular. A bit over half our sample identified as men,
a bit under half identified as women, and around 1% identified outside the
gender binary. Almost all participants had lived in the United States for the
past five years, and they ranged in age from 20 to 75. About 0.5% identified as
having an autism spectrum diagnosis; 3% identified as working with autistic
persons; 12% as being a friend of an autistic person; and 15% as having an
autistic relative.

We administered an implicit associations task, which is a speeded categorization task for
measuring implicit attitudes (including attitudes toward images of brands).

Participants rapidly categorized images of puzzle pieces and non-puzzle piece
shapes. On test trials, the puzzle pieces and shapes were paired with either
negative words (such as grief or agony) or positive words (such
as cheer or paradise). Categorizing puzzle pieces faster than
shapes when they were paired with negative words indicated greater implicit negativity.

gernsbacher1-6028814

[Image: Pair of example generic stimuli from the study. The first
image of the pair

 comprises a golden tone puzzle piece with the words
SHAPE and POSITIVE

in the upper lefthand corner and the words PUZZLE and
NEGATIVE

in the upper righthand corner. The second image comprises a golden tone
circle

with the words SHAPE and POSITIVE in the upper lefthand corner

 and the words PUZZLE and NEGATIVE in the upper righthand corner.]

gernsbacher_puzzlepiece-stimuli_blog-025-6295098
[Image: Pair of example logo stimuli from the study.

The first image of the pair comprises a green puzzle piece with red and gold borders

and the word “Autism” superimposed on it, with the words SHAPE and POSITIVE

 in the upper lefthand corner and the words PUZZLE and NEGATIVE

in the upper righthand corner. The second image of the pair comprises a green circle

with red and gold borders with the word “Autism” superimposed on it,

with the words SHAPE and POSITIVE in the upper lefthand corner

and the words PUZZLE and NEGATIVE in the upper righthand corner.]

We also
administered an explicit associations task, which is a standard task for
assessing explicit attitudes toward brands. Without any time-pressure,
participants completed the two sentences: “When I see a puzzle piece, the first
few thoughts that come to my mind are ____” and “When I see a shape, the first
few thoughts that come to my mind are ____.” Participants were asked to list
five associations for puzzle pieces and five associations for shapes, and their
associations were later sorted into mutually exclusive categories (e.g., negative
associations, such as “problem,” “bad,” and “sad,” or positive associations, such
as “fun,” “happy,” and “good”).

What were the study’s results?

The study’s results
demonstrated that puzzle pieces evoke negativity from the public—both
implicit negativity and explicit negativity. During the implicit associations
task, participants categorized puzzle pieces significantly faster than they
categorized shapes when the puzzle pieces or shapes were paired with negative
words (t(399)=-7.661, p<.001).

A standardized metric
known as the Implicit Association Test score also demonstrated that participants’
implicit bias against puzzle pieces, both generic puzzle pieces and those used as
autism logos was significantly negative (t(399)=-5.357, p<.001).

During the explicit
associations task, participants provided considerably more negative explicit
associations to puzzle pieces than to shapes (z=4.693, p<.001,
d=0.491). In fact, half the participants’ negative versus positive
explicit associations to puzzle pieces were negative (in contrast, only a third
of their explicit associations to shapes were negative).

Participants
explicitly associated puzzle pieces, even generic puzzle pieces, with
incompleteness, imperfection, and oddity.

What policies do the results suggest?

This study’s
results suggest that if an organization wants to evoke negativity from the
public, using puzzle pieces is the way to go. Puzzle pieces evoke negativity. However,
if an organization wants to evoke positivity about autism, puzzle-piece imagery
is probably not the way to go.   

As autistic author, artist, and international speaker, Judy Endow, MSW,
has concluded
, because “of the negative message about autism the general
public now associates with the puzzle piece, any positive programming on behalf
of supporting autistics is undermined by use of the puzzle piece logo.”