Interview: Philip Zimbardo

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Professor Philip Zimbardo is a world-famous social psychologist, perhaps best known for his infamous Stanford Prison experiment of 1971. He is author of over 50 books and 400 articles, and in recent times has published bestselling books on the topics of time and evil (The Time Paradox and The Lucifer Effect).

Written with Nikita D. Coulombe, his latest book, Man (Dis)connected, considers how technology has changed what it means be a man, and why more young men are failing as a consequence. It was published last week.

You can read my review here: Man (Dis)connected by Philip Zimbardo and Nikita D. Coulombe

There’s an interesting chapter in the book about the rise of women. As someone who has seen several generations of men, I wonder if the decline you identify in Man (Dis)connected is relative to the rise of women, or if this is an absolute decline?

I'm making two statements. One, more men in this generation are failing than ever before. If something is not done to change that, that failure will continue. At the same time, in parallel, women are doing better than they ever have. They are more successful in academia, more successful in business, more successful in athletics, than they have ever been. Now it's even worse for men because in the past you could made invidious comparisons with women: at least I'm better than them if I'm not better than most guys. Now these young men are better than no one. It's a double whammy. It's young men feeling that they are not successful in school, and they are not as successful in business as they should be - they are feeling socially isolated. Again, as I point out, many of them do not have a father around to set standards. Then retreating to the security, safety, predictability of an internet world, video game world, and the pornography world.

At the same time as they are doing worse, women are doing significantly better than ever before. Last year we have data that around the world women received more of every academic degree from BA, to PhD, MA, MD, medical, law, and even engineering. This has never happened before. Many, many, universities in America have a gender gap of five to ten percent favouring women. In past eras it used to be the opposite. You'd see many more men than women.

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Why do you think it is that men have failed to adapt to the new technology - the digital environment - when women are clearly thriving by comparison? What causes technology to be more of a problem for men than women?

Women have always been more social creatures. Women have always had social networks. Women live in social networks. Men have always been relative loners, had one or few friends. We point out that if men don't make friends in high school, college, or the military, they will never have friends again. Women don't need the internet as entertainment. They don't need the internet for an escape. They have other women. This has always been true. Men now are gravitating toward the internet, toward technology, as an escape from not being able to make it on their own, not having friends. In many, many, cases we're showing shyness among men is on the increase.

I think it’s fair to say that in the book two of the key technologies you pick out as being problematic are video games and online pornography. You write that there are positive elements of video games, which can encourage problem solving and various other transferable skills. Do you feel there is scope for pornography to be positive too – in a changed form, perhaps – or can it only be detrimental?

It's not only detrimental. With the video games we're making it clear: we are not against video games per se. There is research that shows video games played in moderation, and that probably means two hours a day or less, has benefits. It improves cognitive skills and improves hand-motor coordination. It gives you something that you can develop a mastery in. Something that you can be good at, something that is predictable. It's only when it becomes excessive, that you begin to do it five hours a day or more, that it becomes a problem. It's only when it becomes a source of social isolation when you retreat to the video games and the retreat is away from friends, away from social contact, away from girls.

The other thing we haven't even made the argument about is the reason boys are more attracted to video games is that they're violent. Video games encourage aggression. Women get turned off by that. The makers of the video games and the way they're promoted is geared towards men. They are appealing to male values of dominance, of aggression, of assertiveness. Obviously, there are some women who play video games, and many more would if games reduce that hostile aggressive component. There are games like Farmville. It's not that they can't make games like that, there are games that encourage social cooperation - there could be games promoting conservation etc. It's just that aggressive games are most appealing, the games that sell most. This is a business, that's the bottom line. It’s a multi-million dollar business that caters to men who are willing to pay for their X-box, for the newest thing.

With pornography, it used to be, in my generation, you looked at pornography and learned about sexual performance, you learned about what kinds of sexual positions were possible or available, things that you never thought about. In one sense access to pornography increases the realm of possibility. The problem again is the porn industry is a multi-million dollar industry. There are hundreds of porn sites. Many of them charge, some of them are free to begin and then you pay a dollar for high definition etc, and you get hooked. 98% of all the porn sites that involve paid subscription are subscribed to by men. For those that are free more than 75% of users are men, primarily. The problem now is that men are watching pornography alone - most people don't even talk about it, so there's some shame to it. Again, the problem is in excess; our data shows that boys are watching at least two hours a week on average. For each boy who watches two hours a week, there's somebody watching four or six hours a week. It gives you a totally false conception of what sex is all about. It eliminates all of the social, emotional and romantic elements of sex.

Now it's all about physical performance, there's no narrative, there's no story; it's about physical performance. It's about putting penises in an orifice, in vaginas and anuses and in the mouth. In every conceivable arrangement; there's no kissing, there's no touching, there's no romancing, there's no communication about boundaries. When a young boy watches this it becomes the norm because every single video is like that. Let's say Porn Hub, which is a free one, there are probably a million videos there and there are a hundred categories. There are categories of sex that I couldn't even, ever imagine: Asians molested on public transportation, mother and daughters, for example. That's a category and within that category there are endless number of videos. There are sexual combinations that are unimaginable. Given that pornography is big business, there are people who say, "What can we do that other sites don’t to attract guys?”

The narrative of sex and seduction is a really interesting issue. To pick up on that for a moment – in the book you mention pick-up artist communities briefly, where young men are taught a kind of social script for attracting women. I wondered if you saw any correlation between the way men interact with video games and the way they pursue romantic attachments? That is to say, do men now treat dating like a one-player video game, simply needing to negotiate different steps with the goal of ‘closing’ the girl (and then moving onto the next ‘game’)?

It's certainly a consequence of watching a lot pornography; there’s clearly the objectification of women. Women are there across all the videos to give men pleasure. Women have no rights. In many of the videos it's rough sex, it's gang bangs, where women physically get abused. Even in the others, it is always women as objects. The bottom line of every single video now is, a man has an orgasm on a woman's face or on her breasts. This is the way virtually every single one ends. Almost no woman I’ve ever met in my life, and I'm 80 years old, ever wanted that, ever thought that was sexy or appealing or attractive. Now young men who see that assume this is what women want.

There's a website, I think we talk about it, Make Love Not Porn. The person that organised that website says: here's what men want, here's what women want and there's no connection. What men want is what they derive as the norm from videos and women don't want that, women want romance. Women want touching, kissing, hugging, so physical sex is part of social, emotional romance. For men physical sex is simply part of performance. Video games are, let's say, asexual: in video games everybody becomes an object. It's an object to form a team, it's an object to kill if they're enemies. In the video games it's a world without feelings. Especially if we're talking about Mafia or Warcraft. For me it's creating a negative conception about what other people are. Other people are your allies or you enemies, if they're enemies you should destroy them.

Finally, to go back to one of the points you talk about in you mentioned earlier, I wanted to pick up on video games and pornography being big business. I wondered how you felt one could go about reforming industries that are entirely driven by money; set up to pander to men’s every need, hook them and then monetise their addiction.

Essentially you're talking about changing the attitudes of some guys - one way not to get addicted is to set a limit, to say you're only going to watch a hour, whatever. It's really a systemic change that’s needed: how do you get the video game industry, how do you get the porn industry to do some self-regulation? How do you get the video game industry to make more games which involve social cooperation? More games are needed, I'm arguing, which involve having two human players side by side, so you have social proximity, as you would have if you were an airline pilot with a navigator. Those are simple ideas we put forward.

In pornography all you would have to do is have some female consultants to say what kind of pornography would be attractive to women and companies could create that. You could have female erotica, aside from lesbian things. First of all there would be a narrative as it used to be in the old videos. If you remember Behind the Green Door, Deep Throat - there was a story and throughout the story people would have sex. Now there's no story, there's no narrative. It's only about physical engagement. I'm sure you could appeal to video companies and say, there's a huge world out there; women have lots of money, especially young women. Why not have a whole video program which is designed for women, not lesbian women. It's women who would be your consultants. I'm sure all it would mean is the videos have a narrative, the guy shows respect for the women, sometimes the woman takes the lead, sometimes she follows. You make it more natural as in real life. You can still have beautiful women, you can still have studly men, you can still have oral, anal, vaginal sex, but it would be within a more romantic, loving context. That's how I would change it. I don’t think it would cost a company money, I think it would make a fortune.

You think change is possible from within the industry then, it wouldn't need any legislation?

No, no, not at all. You can't have legislation because it violates free speech. You can't limit pornography, you can't limit free speech. You can't even say to a five-year-old kid that there should be a limit because you can't control it now, given that it's available 24-7. Parents don't have a clue what their kids are watching.

If you'd like to find out more about Philip Zimbardo and his work, you can visit his website at www.zimbardo.com. Man (Dis)connected is available now, in both paperback and e-formats.

Useful Links
Man (Dis)connected on Amazon (UK)
Man (Dis)connected on Amazon (US)
Philip Zimbardo's Website
Philip Zimbardo on Twitter

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