Psychologist Philip Zimbardo Says to Young Men: You’re Educationally and Sexually Doomed

You almost certainly learned about Philip Zimbardo in school. In 1971, as a Stanford University psychology professor, he conducted the infamous “Stanford prison experiment” wherein he recruited 24 students to populate a simulated basement jail. Some of the students Zimbardo made “guards” quickly turned hard, authoritarian, and psychologically abusive. Some of those he made “prisoners” simply surrendered to this abuse. But if Zimardo’s newest observations about human psychology have hit the mark, you might have failed to learn anything school had to teach you at all — assuming, that is, you’re a young man. In “The Demise of Guys?“, the TEDtalk embedded above, he argues that “guys are flaming out academically,” that “they’re wiping out socially with girls, and sexually with women.” He sees them laboring under “a new fear of intimacy,” of “physical, emotional connection with somebody else, especially with somebody of the opposite sex who gives off ambiguous, contradictory, phosphorescent signals.” Outperformed by girls “at every level,” guys would rather play video games or watch football with a barful of strangers than engage in direct, meaningful human contact.

Zimbardo blames this allegedly poor showing by the modern male on not simply video games, excessively compelling sports media, or the lure of “the asynchronistic internet world,” but the broader development of all sorts of technologies all geared to deliver “change, novelty, excitement, and constant arousal.” This, according to his argument, has thrown a wrench into the mental machinery of today’s guys, rendering them totally ignorant of “the language of face contact” and “the rules that enable you to talk to somebody else, to listen to somebody else.” And don’t even get him started on how the pornography industry, more robust than ever, has created an “arousal addiction” worse than real drug addiction: “Drugs, you want more,” Zimbardo explains. “Arousal, you want different.”  (Can Alain de Botton help?) This new and unquenchable thirst for “change, novelty, excitement, and constant arousal” puts guys “totally out of sync” with the gradual progress and subtlety of proper education and romantic relationships. Perhaps you’d expect to hear such an indictment of modern society from a professor emeritus nearing eighty years of age. Even he admits that “I’m here to alarm,” but I respond as a guy about to leave for a date as soon as I finish writing this post: mission accomplished.

Update: It looks like Zimbardo has released an 80 page ebook, co-written with Nikita Duncan, that’s also called The Demise of Guys. If you’re looking for some elaboration on the issues raised above you can buy the $2.99 book for the KindleNook and iPad.

Related content:

The Famous Stanford Prison Experiment on YouTube

The Secret Powers of Time

Alain De Botton Turns His Philosophical Mind To Developing “Better Porn”

Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.

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  1. Bex says . . . | September 3, 2012 / 4:44 am

    I wonder what, exactly, a “proper romantic relationship” looks like. If my marriage wasn’t about enabling each other to go out, explore and discover new and awesome things about the world, I would probably not be interested in it either. There is nothing wrong with wanting adventure (“novelty”) in life. There is something wrong with telling people that men are adventurous and want novelty but women just want to sit at home and be bored.

  2. ZL 'Kai' Burington says . . . | September 3, 2012 / 6:47 am

    I don’t know if it’s just me, but Zimbardo sounds more than a little misogynist with his statements. “ambiguous, contradictory, phosphorescent signals”? Maybe it’s Zimbardo who needs to talk with some women.

  3. Trevor says . . . | September 3, 2012 / 10:25 am

    I haven’t watched Zimbardo’s talk, so my own opinion is definitely partial, but I found Carl Zimmer’s essay on it to be extremely persuasives:

    At the very least, I’d recommend reading the Zimmer piece before contributing $2.99 to Zimbardo’s enterprise, which seems more than a bit…empty.

  4. Hanoch says . . . | September 3, 2012 / 3:22 pm

    He is a bit late to be sounding an alarm. This issue began being raised at least 15 years ago and its causes were the subject of Christina Hoff Sommers’ 2001 book “The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men”. Given that the troubling data were showing up by the mid-1990s, his technology theory does not seem very compelling.

  5. Gary says . . . | September 3, 2012 / 6:12 pm

    “You almost certainly learned about Dr. Philip Zimbardo in high school…”
    My immediate reaction was “Who?”
    Why is it all doctors/professors who are making some generalisation about a social group seem to be considered some amazing significant figure when an article is written about them?

  6. ellis says . . . | September 4, 2012 / 3:15 pm

    I am surprised when I meet someone who has never heard of Dr. Zimbardo. I read about his prison experiment in high school and remembered it vividly when talking about it ten years later in college. I think his work will be in high regard in social theory for years to come.

  7. Hezekiah Garrett says . . . | October 1, 2012 / 9:50 pm

    Kai Burington ought to learn to parse English sentences.

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