Susan Greenfield’s latest claim: playing video games to blame for financial crisis

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To view the original article published online in the Telegraph please click here.

Baroness Greenfield’s been at it again: in this month’s Wired article entitled, ‘Did video games make bankers more reckless?’

Rather bizarrely, Greenfield’s hypothetical argument boils down to the premise that the current generation of bankers grew up playing video games and that video games make you reckless.

“What if the recent wave of recklessness among bankers was due, in part, to the fact that the younger generation has been brought up in two dimensions – subjected to prolonged time in front of a screen, immersed in the world of computer games?”

In my last post I made reference to Greenfield’s claims that playing video games will result in the inability to empathise, following her address to the House of Lords earlier this year.

I don’t want to turn this into an anti-Susan Greenfield rant, but I just don’t understand. For such a preeminent neuroscientist to make such dangerously unscientific claims is truly mystifying and serves to undermine the very purpose of scientific enquiry itself.

In support of her argument Greenfield references Phineas Gage, a 19th century foreman on a railway gang who wound up with a “tampering iron” in the front of his brain. The damage he sustained to the pre-frontal cortex led to unusually reckless behaviour. Greenfield then extrapolates this argument to suggest that anyone who takes unusually high risks (e.g. gamblers and, strangely, “obese subjects”) are also likely to have an under developed pre-frontal cortex. She then goes on to state that:

“We could almost draw a connection between the under-functioning of the pre-frontal cortex and a switch from the normal adult preoccupation with the past and the future.”

“Well, the screen mandates short attention spans with a premium on the senses, as the multimedia sights and sounds flash before you. What you see is what you get, and the whole point is the experience of playing. The screen world is one where you can always play the game again, where there are no irreversible consequences.”

And how does Greenfield get from video games to bankers? I’m certainly not aware that bankers as a group are or would have been highly predisposed to playing video games.

If Greenfield’s contention were supported by strong empirical evidence I would be willing to accept that there might be some correlation between taking risks and playing video games. But such a poorly justified and unsubstantiated argument is just too weak to take seriously. And even though Greenfield suggests that this is “an experiment crying out to be done”, her suggestion that we compare the level pre-frontal cortex activity among long-term gamers with age-matched non-gamers would prove nothing except that people who like playing computer games may also like taking risks (and vice versa). It would not, however, prove that playing video games causes people to be more reckless.

When anyone claims that technology is to blame for all the bad in the world it smacks of fear and misunderstanding. It also highlights a genuine lack of real knowledge about the subject.

While there is still much to learn about how technology and the Internet is changing our behaviour and the way we think, there is an increasing body of academic research which specifically seeks explore such issues, in particular the discipline of Cyberpsychology.  It’s disappointing then that Greenfield has made little or no attempt to research, reference or acknowledge this growing body of knowledge in developing her hypothesis.  Instead she relies upon her, not entirely relevant, background as a neuroscientist.

Like it or not (and Greenfield clearly doesn’t), computers, video games and the Internet are here to stay.  Surely our efforts would be better spent trying to explore and understanding exactly how to ensure that these tools and technologies can be used productively and positively rather than dismissing them out-of-hand as damaging?

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On 2nd June 2009
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