The Demise of Social Science

Is rampant addiction to porn and video games really ruining a generation of men?


The Demise of Guys: Why Boys Are Struggling and What We Can Do About It, by Philip G. Zimbardo and Nikita Duncan, TED Books, $2.99.

The Demise of Guys is based on a talk that Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo gave at the 2011 TED (Technology, Education, Design) conference in Long Beach, California. The talk was tendentious and unpersuasive at four minutes, and it only suffers from being expanded into an ebook of 20,000 or so words, because you keep asking: Is this really all there is? A series of sweeping generalizations, backed up by little more than anecdotes and other people's sweeping generalizations, capped by suggested solutions to an undocumented problem that range from banal to silly? Yes, that is all you will get for your $2.99 (for the Kindle edition), along with a rising sense of irritation that culminates in a resolution never to waste your time on a TED book again.

Zimbardo's thesis is that "boys are struggling" in school and in love because they play video games too much and watch too much porn. But he and his co-author, a recent University of Colorado graduate named Nikita Duncan, never establish that boys are struggling any more nowadays than they were when porn was harder to find and video games were limited to variations on Pong. The data they cite mostly show that girls are doing better than boys, not that boys are doing worse than they did before and Grand Theft Auto. Such an association would by no means be conclusive, but it's the least you'd expect from a respected social scientist like Zimbardo, who oversaw the famous Stanford "prison experiment" that we all read about in Psych 101.

The fact that boys are more likely than girls to be diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, more likely to drop out of high school, and less likely to obtain a bachelor's degree does not mean their abilities are weaker than they used to be, let alone that too much Tour Call of Duty has rendered them unfit for academics. The closest Zimbardo comes to a prima facie case linking rising dysfunction among boys to excessive electronic stimulation is his own research on shyness, which finds that 60 percent of Americans (not just men) describe themselves as shy today, compared to 40 percent in the 1980s. "That rise," Zimbardo and Duncan write, "has been correlated with increased use of technology, which minimizes direct, face-to-face social interaction."

That rise has been correlated with many things, of course, but this is the best the authors can do by way of identifying Internet-assisted masturbation and the killing of virtual zombies as the culprits. A closer look at Zimbardo's data might have been helpful at this point. How do we know that an increase in self-reported shyness indicates an actual change in social aptitude, as opposed to a greater willingness to admit feelings that most humans experience? Did the increase in reported shyness occur disproportionately among men? Were heavy porn consumers and video game players especially likely to call themselves shy? If so, how do we know in which direction the causality runs?

Zimbardo and Duncan do not have time for such questions, because the shyness research is just a pretext for launching into a series of empirically untethered claims: "At least guys used to know how to dance. Now they don't even know where to look for common ground, and they wander about the social landscape like tourists in a foreign land unable to ask for directions. They don't know the language of face contact, the nonverbal and verbal set of rules that enable you to comfortably talk with and listen to somebody else and get them to respond back in kind. This lack of social interaction skills surfaces most especially with desirable girls and women. The absence of such critical social skills, essential to navigating intimate social situations, encourages a strategy of retreat, going fail-safe. Girls equal likely failure; safe equals the retreat into online and fantasy worlds that, with regular practice, become ever more familiar, predictable and, in the case of video gaming, more controllable."

You might question the relevance of lost waltzing and fox trotting abilities, although "learn how to dance" appears on Zimbardo and Duncan's list of suggested solutions. You might even wonder whether male awkwardness around pretty women is a newly discovered phenomenon. But as with most of the book's debatable assertions, no citation is given for the claim that guys' social skills have markedly deteriorated in the last couple of decades.

Perhaps that's just as well. One source of evidence that Zimbardo and Duncan rely on heavily, an eight-question survey of people who watched Zimbardo's TED talk online, is so dubious that anyone with a bachelor's degree in psychology (such as Duncan), let alone a Ph.D. (such as Zimbardo), should be embarrassed to cite it without a litany of caveats. The most important one: It seems probable that people who are attracted to Zimbardo's talk, watch it all the way through, and then take the time to fill out his online survey are especially likely to agree with his thesis and especially likely to report problems related to electronic diversions. This is not just a nonrepresentative sample; it's a sample bound to confirm what Zimbardo thinks he already knows. "We wanted our personal views to be challenged or validated by others interested in the topic," the authors claim. Mostly validated, to judge by their survey design.

I am more inclined to believe the results of another research project undertaken for the book, but only because its results are so unsurprising.  Duncan, who turned her senior thesis into the 2009 book Orgasms: Art & Psyche, shifted her attention to less elevated portrayals of fornication by "immersing herself in Internet porn for three days and nights." Among her findings: "In the most-viewed videos…it is an average of 33 percent of the way through the video before there is vaginal or anal penetration. In only a quarter of the videos is there a discernable [sic] female orgasm, whereas in 81 percent of the videos there is a discernable [sic] male orgasm—the male orgasm typically is the highlight of the final scene. Not once in any of the most-viewed videos is there a discussion of safer sex practices, or of physical or emotional expectations or boundaries." This research apparently formed the basis for Zimbardo and Duncan's recommendation that pornographers include an "education" category on their websites and incorporate safe-sex PSAs into their movies. (No, I'm not kidding.)

But at least surveying Zimbardo's fans and counting cum shots produce data, albeit data of limited usefulness. Other sources of evidence cited by Zimbardo and Duncan are so weak that they have the paradoxical effect of undermining their argument rather than reinforcing it. How do Zimbardo and Duncan know about "the sense of total entitlement that some middle-aged guys feel within their relationships"? Because "a highly educated female colleague alerted us" to this "new phenomenon." How do they know that "one consequence of teenage boys watching many hours of Internet pornography…is they are beginning to treat their girlfriends like sex objects"? Because of a theory propounded by Daily Mail columnist Penny Marshall. How do they know that "men are as good as their women require them to be"? Because that's what "one 27-year-old guy we interviewed" said.

Even when more rigorous research is available, Zimbardo and Duncan do not necessarily bother to look it up. How do they know that teenagers "who spend their nights playing video games or texting their friends instead of sleeping are putting themselves at greater risk for gaining unhealthy amounts of weight and becoming obese"? Because an NPR correspondent said so. Likewise, the authors get their information about the drawbacks of the No Child Left Behind Act from a gloss of a RAND Corporation study in a San Francisco Chronicle editorial. This is the level of documentation you'd expect from a mediocre high school student, not a college graduate, let alone a tenured social scientist at a leading university.

To their credit, Zimbardo and Duncan do not bash porn or video games indiscriminately, acknowledging life-enhancing functions for both. And no doubt they are right that too much of either is bad, which is true by definition. But as for the rest—that addiction to cinematic sex and virtual violence is rampant, that it is leaving large and growing numbers of young men mentally and emotionally crippled, and that the answer lies in better male role models, porn with a stronger educational component, and the teaching of "critical thinking" (!) as well as "nonspecific principals" (sic)—the book left me less convinced than I was when I started it.