Philip Zimbardo’s Man Disconnected claims porn, Internet are destroying men.

The Guy Behind the Stanford Prison Experiment Says Video Games Are Destroying Men

The Guy Behind the Stanford Prison Experiment Says Video Games Are Destroying Men

The citizen’s guide to the future.
May 13 2015 2:06 PM
FROM SLATE, NEW AMERICA, AND ASU

Straw Man

The guy behind the Stanford prison experiment claims video games and porn are destroying men.

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Philip Zimbardo’s survey was seemingly designed to confirm people’s assumptions about young men.

Photo by Nebojsa Bobic/Shutterstock

In 1971, the psychologist Philip Zimbardo spearheaded the Stanford prison experiment to show how the hierarchy of the penitentiary system could turn otherwise reasonable men into monsters. Now, Zimbardo has identified a new threat to mankind: the Internet. Excessive video game use and porn consumption, Zimbardo says, is turning modern young men into limp, loveless losers. It’s a theory he’s pushed with increasing urgency over the past several years. In 2011, Zimbardo delivered a TED talk titled “The Demise of Guys?” The next year, he penned an e-book based on the talk titled The Demise of Guys, no more question mark. And this month, Zimbardo released his full-length tract: Man (Dis)connected: How Technology Has Sabotaged What It Means to Be Male, and What Can Be Done.

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Amanda Hess is a David Carr fellow at the New York Times. Follow her on Twitter.

Man (Dis)connected (written by Zimbardo with a co-author, Nikita Coulombe) proffers a host of explanations for this crisis of masculinity—too many female teachers, too few father figures, too much soda—but it reserves its most damning critique for video games and porn. The Independent calls the work a “study” that takes an “in-depth look into the lives of 20,000 young men and their relationships with video games and pornography.” It’s not, and it doesn’t.

Zimbardo told the BBC last week that “almost every statement we make is evidence-based,” but that depends on what you mean by “evidence.” The research that underpins the book doesn’t come from a peer-reviewed study. It comes from a survey that Zimbardo posted online alongside his 2011 TED talk. It amassed 20,000 responses in two months, but not just from “young men”: Only 39.8 percent of respondents were under the age of 25, and about one-quarter of all respondents were female. Many of them had just watched a video where the psychologist administering the survey told them that young men have been “digitally rewired” to fail at life and love and that if radical social changes didn’t happen soon, humans would be reduced to “banana slugs.”

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The survey itself is … not good. In an appendix, the authors note that the survey originally defined “excessive” gaming and porn consumption as “2 or more hours per day,” but that they “later” changed the definition to “4 or more hours a week of gaming or 2 or more hours per week of porn use.” That’s a radical difference, and the swap is not explained. Some questions were so vague that they seemed designed to promote Zimbardo’s thesis. One asked respondents whether they believed in a “strong relationship between excessive video game playing and/or porn watching” and a “lack of interest in pursuing or maintaining a romantic relationship/social isolation.” But we have no idea which of the two definitions of “excessive” the respondents were using, and feeling socially isolated is a different experience from losing all interest in relationships. Things got similarly squishy when it came time to report the results. At one point, the authors write that “a lot of young men in our own 20,000-person survey said that porn distorted their idea of a healthy sexual relationship.” How many is “a lot”? We’re never told.

Worse, the survey questions focused on respondents’ opinions, not on their actual experiences. It didn’t ask young men about how their own lives are affected by porn and video games—it could have asked about the amount of time they spend playing games every day and the number of social interactions they have per week, then studied how those numbers matched up. Instead, it asked respondents to opine on the behavior of young men in general. The survey wasn’t designed to illuminate truths about the lives of young men; it was designed to confirm people’s assumptions about them. Some of the quotes culled from the survey—Zimbardo also invited respondents to write extemporaneously on the topic—sound more like homework assignments than diary entries: “I think the on-demand pleasure, gratification, control and stress release of pornography and video games reduces our patience, makes us hold ourselves to unrealistic expectations and cripples us socially,” one high-school boy said, as if in response to an essay prompt.

Some of the anecdotal evidence produced by the survey is distressing. “I play video games and watch pornography on a regular basis,” one respondent said. “I’ve hated the tiresome aspect of having to make the effort to appease the opposite sex. It’s expensive, confusing and rarely successful.” That sounds like a boy crying out for help. But an anecdote is not a trend. In the book’s introduction, Zimbardo writes, “You don’t have to look too far to see what we’re talking about; everyone knows a young man who is struggling.” (Sure. I’m also acquainted with a struggling young woman, a struggling old man, and a struggling middle-aged dog.) Sometimes, even the anecdotes have to be stretched past the point of recognition to fit the thesis. The book asserts that young men are suffering from “a growing feeling of penis envy” contracted from watching too much porn. “This can be seen in public locker rooms,” the authors write, “where many young men refuse to disrobe, undressing in the showers and covering themselves when they come out.”

Other lines don’t even rise to the level of an anecdote. They’re just non sequiturs. Young men today “seem to be emulating successful media celebrities and personalities such as David Beckham, the swimmer Michael Phelps, and entrepreneur Mark Zuckerberg,” the authors write. “New emasculating terms such as ‘man-child’ and ‘moodle’ (man-poodle) have emerged,” they say. And a “good portion of men” exhibit “a deep preference for male company and bonding over association or partnership with women.” The evidence? The plots of My Fair Lady and She’s All That. Zimbardo’s most creative invention is perhaps the claim that porn is making young men impotent. “When the male sexual enhancement drug Viagra was first promoted, its advertisers featured white-haired older men,” the book claims. “Now consider that more men under 30 years old are being prescribed Viagra than ever to ensure adequate sexual performance.” But Viagra commercials still feature silver foxes. As for the vague claim that more young men are taking Viagra “than ever”: Zimbardo’s source is a 2008 Daily Mail story that reports, “[H]ealth experts say ever-younger men are increasingly turning to Viagra in a bid to keep up with modern women inspired by the strong female characters in films such as Sex And The City, starring Sarah Jessica Parker.”

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Just like lazy investigations into youth “hookup culture” that interview only young women, Man (Dis)connected suffers by focusing on only the suffering of young men. As the New Scientist’s Chris Baraniuk put it, “Because we don’t get under their skin, women’s lives look positively rosy by contrast.” The past also ends up looking pretty swell. Zimbardo’s argument requires him to isolate a period in time when young men started to go downhill, and he picks the 1977 debut of Star Wars as the beginning of the end. That’s convenient for Zimbardo, who was in his mid-40s by that time. He gets to say that he was raised back when men were men. In those days, “when teenage boys got together they would play sports, ride their bicycles, drive around aimlessly, and play cards,” the authors write. “They drank and smoked and nearly died running around with BB guns and building rafts to float down rivers that would fill up after heavy rains.” Even if that were true, it says nothing of how these men treated women. The book just assumes that in the good old days, men enjoyed strong relationships and even stronger erections. There are interesting questions to be asked about what my colleague Hanna Rosin calls the “End of Men,” but truthfully investigating how some young men could perform better at school or craft healthier relationships requires us to be honest about what a boy’s life really used to be like.

Exploring the pitfalls of pre-Internet male culture would be a thesis-destroying endeavor. Instead, the book just ignores the question. “A lot of young men in the Westernized world have developed a Madonna-Whore complex,” the authors write. (Pretty sure that was coined before Star Wars.) One young woman who filled out the survey said of male pornography use, “[T]he older generations never had to deal with this, they don’t understand that young men need to be educated about sex as an act that is enjoyable to both parties.” That attitude assumes that at every other point in American history young men were raised to prioritize female sexual pleasure. Find evidence of that, and then we can begin to entertain the idea that the Internet is to blame.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.