Susan Greenfield on bankers and computer games: badly thought out hypothesising

Wired’s science and health coverage is normally pretty good. We were therefore disappointed to see an article by Susan Greenfield: presenting some badly thought out hypothesising, and suggesting an inadequate understanding of a number of complex factors. Greenfield chooses to

start with a bold hypothesis…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.

Greenfield argues that

cases of brain damage suggest that reckless behaviour may be linked to a compromised or under-active prefrontal cortex…So here’s my reasoning: first, reckless behaviour is related to a mindset where the prefrontal cortex under-functions, and a premium consequently shifts to the excitement and thrill of the here and now. Second, our brains are shaped by the environment. Third, if the screen culture creates a world dominated by sensation and process rather than by content, significance and narrative, it may well be that those playing computer games have brains that adjust appropriately.

Greenfield then asks whether this

might that account for our current financial mess? Probably not entirely. But remember, you heard it here first.

Unfortunately, Greenfield’s approach is badly thought out, on a number of levels:

  • It shows some historical short-sightedness.  I am not convinced that the current economic instability – and the preceding boom – are significantly worse than the South Sea Bubble, Tulipmania, the 1920s and 1930s, etc.  Bankers and market speculators were involved in these to various degrees.  I would need some evidence to convince me that modern bankers are significantly more reckless than those involved in previous crises.
  • One can also note that, in previous generations, reckless behaviour fed into two world wars; during the Cold War, the brinksmanship of the Cuban Missile Crisis brought us frighteningly close to nuclear armageddon.  The Credit Crunch may be a very bad thing, but can actually be viewed as relatively benign compared to some past crises.  Does this suggest that current generations have somehow ‘better’, less reckless, brains than their ancestors?  Or are there – as we would argue – more complex factors in play?
  • There is a lack of discussion about the demographics of pre-Credit Crunch banking in Greenfield’s article.  Clearly, banks employ senior staff to work on their financial transactions and trading – these staff tend to be rather older than the current generation of graduates.  Have their prefrontal cortexes been damaged through alternate means?
  • Greenfield’s normative slant, and her account of risk, are problematic.  A lot of bankers involved in recent speculations have made remarkably large amounts of money – for themselves, and their employers – in remarkably short spaces of time.  By some readings, this behaviour could be entirely rational.  A lot of bankers and shareholders got rich; this may have led to the subsequent collapse of large parts of the economy, but the process through which this collapse was reached brought substantial benefits for many people.  I suspect that many people would – if asked to make a considered, reasoned decision about whether they would like to get very rich very quickly, but at the expense of participating in bringing the Credit Crunch – happily take up the opportunity to do so.
  • Greenfield’s hypothesis lacks empirical support.  There is not good evidence that young people today have prefrontal cortexes which have been negatively affected by computer games-playing.  She suggests that scans should be carried out to test this – but to hypothesise about the role of this supposed under-development in the Credit Crunch without even knowing whether this under-development has taken place is highly premature: one might even call it reckless.  It is also problematic to assume that – if under-development has taken place – computer games were responsible: we think it is a bit more complicated than that, and fail to see why factors from Thatcherism to Higher Education reform should not also be considered.

In summary, Greenfield fails to present good evidence that the behaviour exibited prior to the Credit Crunch was unusually reckless, or that a generation brought up with computer games played a determining role in the development of the Credit Crunch.  Greenfield fails to present good evidence that (from an individual perspective) the behaviour exhibited in the run-up to the Credit Crunch was particularly reckless or irrational.  Greenfield fails to present  good evidence for the supposed under-development of the prefrontal cortex in current generations, or to show that – if this does exist – it was caused by computer games rather than other social factors.

Greenfield’s hypothesising on this issue may well be – as she notes in the article – original.  However, we find it rather reckless and unconvincing.

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10 Comments

Filed under patrick holford

10 responses to “Susan Greenfield on bankers and computer games: badly thought out hypothesising

  1. Yet another article where Greenfield freely speculates but fails to present good evidence for her hunches. It’s not that long ago that she did her ‘Facebook rewires the brain’/’Computers may cause autism’ thing (I’m paraphrasing here) in the Daily Fail. Linky.

    “Social networking websites are causing alarming changes in the brains of young users, an eminent scientist has warned. Sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Bebo are said to shorten attention spans, encourage instant gratification and make young people more self-centred.”

    “She pointed out that autistic people, who usually find it hard to communicate, were particularly comfortable using computers. ‘Of course, we do not know whether the current increase in autism is due more to increased awareness and diagnosis of autism, or whether it can – if there is a true increase – be in any way linked to an increased prevalence among people of spending time in screen relationships. Surely it is a point worth considering,’ she added.”

    [It’s something I mentioned on my blog.]

  2. Claire

    I recently had lunch with an American friend, now retired but who knows a bit about the financial world. I’m ashamed to say we indulged in a fair bit of reckless and most probably unconvincing hypothesising about the origins of the current global financial mayhem (we were in a pub…). In the context of lamenting her son-in-law’s lack of financial acumen which has resulted in this couple being declared bankrupt, losing house in which daughter had sunk her sizeable savings etc (the guy was an analyst with a big-name financial outfit- halp!), I asked her if she had any opinions on how supposedly highly intelligent people had managed to wreak such economic harm through reckless lending. Her one-word answer (based, I suspect, on antipathy towards abovmentioned SIL) was: cocaine . Feckless pair that we are, we seem to have neglected to rush into print with our baseless speculation.

  3. She’s asserting a somewhat-plausible but entirely post hoc hypothesis about the causal relationship between two things, both of which may not even exist (“screen culture” – dubious, “banker’s recklessness”, very dubious too, my understanding is that the individual bankers were acting out of rational albeit myopic self-interest in a perverse system).

    But that’s really no worse than a hundred other pundits. When someone claims that, oh I don’t know, “permissive parenting” is causing “the crime surge”, say, that’s exactly as bad.

    Greenfield only seems especially silly because she’s chosen to talk about a topic in which this kind of thing isn’t usually done. When you look at it 99% of political comment is basically of this form.

    • Sure – but Greenfield is an eminent academic, director of the RI, etc: one would have therefore hoped that her commentary would have been better-substantiated. This commentary is also differentiated from typical political commentary by the added neuro-scienciness: which does, I think, make it more than typically problematic.

      • She is absolutely appalling. It seems that to be a media friendly scientist, you have to be willing to come out with this sort of pap.

      • Agreed – she’s clearly not fit to head the RI and what she’s doing is dragging into disrepute.

        My point though is that were she an opinion columnist rather than the head of the RI no-one would bat an eyelid. Which is an indictment of (most) opinion-columnists.

        I think we’ve found here a new career path.

  4. Pingback: Wednesday Round Up #63 « Neuroanthropology

  5. Matt

    It was a truly awful article and disappointing that Wired saw fit to print it. As well as all of the points that you’ve raised above, the article had a number of other flaws:

    1. She argues that it was recklessness that lead to the financial crisis. Apart from being an over-simplification, it’s not at all clear that individual bankers were behaving recklessly from their own perspective. The bonus schemes in place at the banks rewarded large gains, without providing adequate downside where losses were made. It’s hardly reckless (from the individual’s perspective) to make high-risk investments where the upside is so high and the down-side is so low.

    2. The underlying suggestion in the article is that games caused an increase in reckless behaviour. Even if a correlation could be shown between those who played computer games and those who are reckless, that doesn’t show causation. It could simply be the case that people with reckless tendancies are attracted to videogames. If this is the case, then the argument is reduced to an observation that reckless people may be attracted to both banking and to computer games.

    3. The article reveals Susan’s bias when she talks about individuals who are “overexposed” to computer games. She doesn’t give any suggestion as to what “overexposed” might mean.

    4. Again, she oversimplifies when stating that computer games only create short term incentives. Certainly some MMOs create longer term incentives (albeit measured in perhaps weeks and months rather than years) with consequences that cannot simply be re-set on another playthrough.

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