TED Book Blames Game and Porn Addiction for the “Demise of Guys”

The Demise of GuysTED speaker Dr. Philip Zimbardo and his personal assistant, Nikita Duncan, have written a book blaming addiction to video games and pornography for the “demise” of young men in North America. The two cite famous stories about the man who died while playing Starcraft for fifty hours straight or the man on the MTV show True Life who was kicked out of his home for watching too much porn.

The book listing on Amazon describes the book as such:

Is the rampant overuse of video games and online porn causing the demise of guys?

In their new TED Book, Dr. Philip G. Zimbardo—leader of the famous 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment—and co-author Nikita Duncan suggest that just might be the case. Based on survey responses from 20,000 men, numerous individual interviews and dozens of studies, Zimbardo and Duncan propose that the excessive use of videogames and online porn is creating a generation of shy and risk-adverse guys—who are unable (and unwilling) to navigate the complexities and risks inherent to real-life relationships, school and employment.

Taking a critical look at the problem which is tearing at families and societies everywhere, Zimbardo and Duncan suggest that our guys are suffering from a new form of “arousal addiction,” and introduce a bold new plan for getting them back on track.

Dr. Philip Zimbardo is most known for his 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, in which twenty-four male students were randomly assigned roles of prisoners and guards in a mock prison that had been set up in the basement of the Stanford psychology building and were supposed to stay there for two weeks. The participants adapted to their roles quickly and to an extreme Zimbardo did not expect: the guards became extremely authoritarian and abusive, and the prisoners accepted the torture and even turned on other prisoners. Zimbardo, who was playing the prison warden in the experiment, even got wrapped up in the situation and permitted the abuse to continue. In fact, it wasn’t until a fellow faculty member saw what was going on and expressed severe concern that Zimbardo snapped out of it and ended the study, only six days after it started.

If you heard the sound of a heart breaking somewhere recently, that would be mine. Dr. Zimbardo has been a role model for me for quite some time because of his work with the Stanford Prison Exeperiment. Simply put, for those who don’t know social psychology very well, this man is treated as a god among men because of his pioneering research showing that yes, social roles do affect how we act a lot more than we care to admit. What seems so obvious to us today was revolutionary back in the 1970s, and his experiment quickly became famous because of how shocking the results were.

So when I listened to his TED talk and read the summary of the book, I really didn’t know what to think. I’ve written about both aggression and the definition, potential causes, and potential prevention strategies for video game addiction before, as well as research on the effects of pornography, and as you can at least see from my my conclusions, his are drastically different. But he’s Philip Zimbardo. He can’t be wrong, right? He’s Philip Zimbardo.

Unfortunately, I think his conclusions, if not entirely wrong, are at least blown out of proportion.

Firstly, some of the conclusions he’s drawn have some pretty clear alternative explanations. In his TED talk, he mentions that guys are more likely to drop out than girls, that girls are outperforming guys at all levels of school, and that they’re less likely to get college and graduate degrees. This could be explained by a number of things, including the fact that, for many years, girls were severely disadvantaged in the school environment and are now “catching up,” so to speak, at a much faster rate than anticipated. It could also be biases on the part of the education system in general. He also mentions that boys make up two-thirds of special education students and that boys are five times more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD. However, we also have a pretty strong feeling that some cases like ADHD are overdiagnosed, and that boys are probably more likely to be diagnosed with an attention deficit disorder because they’re socialized to be more physically active in general.

He also makes some claims that men prefer the company of guys over the company of girls, which I’ve never heard a psychologist claim before. There’s plenty of research that states that intimate relationships—usually marriage because it’s the easiest to study—allows for the opportunity for men and women to be intimate and emotionally expressive where they may not be able to normally, at least for men. I also have to ask what context he’s talking about. Obviously, the context for heterosexual men preferring to be around other men is different than the context that they may want to be around women, so it may not be that men and women are even really competing for men’s time. It’s possible that porn and video games might affect how people interact with one another on a personal level, and I’ve read research that shows that men who watch more (read: excessive) amounts of porn are generally worse in bed because they don’t know how to respond to their partner, but I don’t think there’s a widespread problem of men watching too much porn. Sorry.

Now, onto his claims about video gaming. He says that video gaming and porn are known as arousal addictions, which I’d never heard of before. Most psychologists list gambling as impulse control disorder, and most video game addiction research, at least those that I’ve come across, treats video game addiction similarly to gambling addiction. In fact, a lot of the research I’ve run into is basically gambling research that’s been modified to test for that problem with video games instead of metaphorical slot machines. Impulse control disorders involve the inability to look at long-term gains over short-term gains, which causes a problem with the ability to stop doing behaviors like gambling. But Zimbardo says it’s a different kind of addiction, saying that gamers who are addicted will constantly want things that are different, which is why they have problems with women. This doesn’t seem to explain why someone might get addicted to a single game, however. Generally, the research I’ve found suggests that people get addicted to one specific genre or game, which would not support his hypothesis.

I mean, sure, people who play more than a healthy amount of video games are also likely to have social problems. I don’t think that’s happening on a societal scale, though. There are still plenty of charismatic people out there, plenty of marriages still happening, plenty of active registrations on dating sites, and face-to-face meetings like conventions. Hell, people are still going to school and doing okay despite the rampant issues in our education system. I don’t know that any sociological research I’ve ever run across would support the idea that video games are making us as a society less able to cope with social situations.

I guess the big issue here is that it’s a blanket statement about video games. Not all video games are the same and they’re not going to affect people in the same way. In my article about video games and aggression, I state that yes, it’s possible that video games might affect someone in a negative way especially if that person has other problems; however, it’s impossible for video games to cause someone to, say, go out and shoot a cop. Video games—and porn, let’s be honest—do not make anyone do anything. Someone who already has issues is at risk of being affected by those things, but blanket statements like this aren’t useful because there are so many other factors at play. Sure, someone who uses porn as the only model for how sex should happen is going to fail at sex because porn doesn’t really reflect real life. But most men, I would hope, understand that—or, barring that, I would hope, foolishly, that parents are having discussions with their kids about the fact that porn is a fantasy and not actually how you should treat a woman in most cases. You know, kind of like how I hope that parents are having discussions with their kids about how it’s not cool to go out and shoot cops like what you might see in some video games.

Furthermore, a blanket statement about all video games or all porn is about as silly as a blanket statement about all books, all music, or all movies. There are so many genres within these two mediums that it literally does not make sense to blame the entirety of video games or porn for the problems that guys may or may not be facing. There’s hardcore and softcore porn, romantic porn and cheesy porn, porn with actual storylines and porn with no storylines at all. Likewise, there’s action/adventure, puzzle, RPG, shooter, arcade, and many other genres of video games. Is Zimbardo saying that all these genres are to blame? If so, he’s full of crap. I never thought Id’ say that about the man, but if he thinks this, he is full of crap.

But why limit this to just men? More and more women are playing video games nowadays. The ESA states that 42% of all gamers are women. In fact, women over the age of eighteen represent a significantly greater portion of the game-playing population (37%) than boys age seventeen or younger (13%). Why only the demise of guys? Shouldn’t women be failing, too, if video games are the problem? Shouldn’t women start dropping out of school or get diagnosed with ADHD? As these ratios shift to become more equal, if video games are really the problem, shouldn’t we expect those issues to equal out as well? Somehow, I don’t see that happening.

Lastly, let’s get to the description of his book. This book, judging by the Amazon listing at least, is based off a survey and some interviews. A survey? Seriously? From the great Philip Zimbardo? I don’t care how big the survey is or how many interviews you’ve done; surveys and interviews cannot determine cause and effect. In order to determine cause and effect, you need to be able to establish temporal precedence—that the cause came before the effect, that there’s an association, and that you can rule out alternative explanations. You can only provide evidence for an association with surveys and interviews. Period. You can’t establish temporal precedence or rule out other explanations because you aren’t manipulating anything, which is why you need an experiment. Surely, the man who is known for a famous experiment would know this.

I want to know what his bold new plan is. I would bet it’s moderation. That’d be the smart plan, anyway, and is what I suggest in my third article on video game addiction. If you feel like something is becoming a problem in your life, or others are legitimately concerned about your video game or porn habits, maybe you should go talk to someone about it and take measures so that it’s less of a problem. That’s neither a bold or new plan, though.

I guess I’ll have to read the book to find out.

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