Book Review: Grand Theft Childhood

I came across Lawrence Kuthner and Cheryl Olson’s Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth about Violent Games (And What Parents Can Do) while doing some research for an article on the psychology of video games. The book is the end result of a research program by the authors, funded by the U.S. Department of Justice weirdly enough, focusing on violent video games and kids. Kuthner and Olson claim to be impartial researchers who don’t have any particular axe to grind on the issue, unlike activists, politicians, professionals working in the games industry, or gamers themselves. Their aim, they say, was to let their data do the talking.

The data in question are those collected by the researchers from surveys, focus groups, and individual interviews with kids and their families. Right away any reader who has taken anything beyond a Research Methods 101 class could tell you that this is a limiting factor –self report data are subject to a range of biases and using only one or two methods of data collection represents a substantial flaw in any program. But that’s not to say that the data are worthless or that the conclusions the researchers (who readily cop to these limitations) draw from them can’t be used to inform continuing research or draw some conclusions with the right caveats.

And the claims that come out of all this make a certain amount of sense: kids are vulnerable to some of this stuff, but bullying and warped senses of gender or race roles are more likely outcomes than sociopathic killing sprees. Some kids are more vulnerable than other on account of good old fashioned individual differences. Actually, girls play and enjoy violent games, too. Kids think guns and weapons are cool, but what they really like are chances to develop skills, make choices, and interact with other people. Some games may only be single player, but kids build social relationships around them by talking about their common experiences. There is a ratings system in place (the ESRB) but it’s pretty flawed and kids are savvy about how to acquire restricted games. Anyone who has a reason to lie to you about the effects of violent games on kids and culture may very well be. That kind of stuff.

Overall, it’s not a bad read, and a pretty quick one. There are some chapters, like the one drawing parallels between the uproar over violent games to past uproars over every other media you can think of, were a little too long and turgid, and despite claims to be impartial the researchers occasionally pinned their political views onto their sleeves, it is a pretty impartial look at the topic that doesn’t toe any particular line. It’s not the last word on the subject, but I hope that other social scientists pick up on these research programs and build on them.

Book Review: The Upside of Irrationality

Dan Ariely’s previous book on behavioral economics, Predictably Irrational was fantastic. It explored the way that economics work on a personal level when you stop assuming that people are completely irrational and provided a great overview of the many kinks in the human brain that lead us to make weird, suboptimal decisions. His new book, The Upside of Irrationality, flips that coin onto its other side and looks at hour our penchant for irrational decision-making can actually benefit us and make us better off. Or how it could if we let it.

Like in his last book, Ariely draws from a deep well of research conducted by himself and his colleagues in order to provide context for everything he discusses. What I love about this aspect of the book is how clever off-the-wall many of the experiments are. Ariely and company send researchers to villages in India to measure the surprising effect of extravagant rewards on task performance. They construct fake and experimental online dating sites to see how we might better construct our online interactions to capitalize on what it really is that people –especially those of us south of “supermodel” in the looks department– look for in a mate. They talk about subjecting lucky subjects to massages and unlucky ones to excessive vacuum cleaner noise in order to see how we adapt to pleasure or pain. And a lot more. Every chapter contains descriptions of scientific research, but it’s almost all really interesting and takes you to conclusions that will stick with you.

So while I still think Predictably Irrational is the better of the two books because it’s more interesting and instructuve to see how people fail than to see how they might succeed, The Upside of Irrationality is still a very quick and very interesting read. What’s better, it’s practical and may change how you think about your own behavior.