Peter Thiel: Asperger's can be a big advantage in Silicon Valley


Peter Thiel

Fred Prouser / Reuters

Peter Thiel.

Peter Thiel - the PayPal founder, Facebook investor, and bestselling author - hates groupthink.

He avoids hiring MBAs, since he says they tend to be "high extrovert/low conviction people," a combination of traits that "leads towards extremely herd-like thinking and behavior." 

Similarly, hsays that "people end up behaving more lemming-like" in places like San Francisco's South of Market neighborhood, where tons of tech companies are crammed into a .635 square mile area.

All that socialization leads to conformity, he argues, preventing people from coming up with original, innovative ideas.

To Thiel, originality is the name of the entrepreneurial game, since it's the quickest route to gaining a monopoly, as he says Google did with search.


From that logic, he argues that a psychological condition usually thought of as a disorder - Asperger's syndrome - provides a startup advantage.

He told economist Tyler Cowen why in a recent interview.

"I think society is both something that's very real and very powerful, but on the whole quite problematic," Thiel said. "In Silicon Valley, I point out that many of the more successful entrepreneurs seem to be suffering from a mild form of Asperger's where it's like you're missing the imitation, socialization gene."

Asperger's "happens to be a plus for innovation and creating great companies," he added.

According to Medical News TodayAsperger's is a mild form of autism where people have "difficulty responding to the body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice of others." 


On its website, the nonprofit Families of Adults Affected by Asperger's Syndrome says that "many people with Asperger syndrome have difficulty in understanding how others think and feel which may lead to naive, or socially inappropriate behavior." 

Thiel has been saying that Asperger's is a positive for innovation and creativity for years. He said as much to Bloomberg, the New York Times, and the New Yorker

In his 2014 book "Zero to One," Thiel and his co-author Blake Masters write: 

The hazards of imitative competition may partially explain why individuals with an Asperger's-like social ineptitude seem to be at an advantage in Silicon Valley today. If you're less sensitive to social cues, then you're less likely to do the same thing as everyone else around you. 

If you're interested in making things or programming computers, you'll be less afraid to pursue those activities single-mindedly and thereby become incredibly good at them. 


Then when you apply your own skills, you're a little less likely than others to give up your own convictions; this can save you from getting caught up in crowds competing for obvious prizes. 

Thiel certainly isn't alone in his thoughts on Asperger's. 

A movement called "neurodiversity" started to gain traction in the 1990s largely thanks to Australian sociologist Judy Singer.

Rather than taking autism, dyslexia, and other psychological profiles as pathologies that needed to be cured, neurodiversity considers them to be different modes of intelligence. 

So instead of being a liability, something like Asperger's could be an asset.


"I was interested in the liberatory, activist aspects of it-to do for neurologically different people what feminism and gay rights had done for their constituencies," she told Andrew Solomon in a New York Magazine feature

In the language of neurodiversity, someone who doesn't have autism is "neurotypical." 

In certain contexts, it's neurotypical people who are at a disadvantage.

"Autistic people, for instance, have prodigious memories for facts, are often highly intelligent in ways that don't register on verbal IQ tests, and are capable of focusing for long periods on tasks that take advantage of their natural gift for detecting flaws in visual patterns," wrote Wired's Steve Silberman in 2013. "By autistic standards, the 'normal' human brain is easily distractible, is obsessively social, and suffers from a deficit of attention to detail."

What's an environment that rewards that psychological profile? 


Why, Silicon Valley.

Read the full transcript of Thiel's interview here and watch the video below.