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.