Game On

"Don't Bother Me Mom—I'm Learning!"
by Mark Prensky. Paragon House Publishers, 2006 ($19.95)


As kids spend ever more time in the virtual world, the debate over whether video games foster harmful or helpful real-world habits rages. Marc Prensky, an educational software developer, is pro-game. In "Don't Bother Me Mom--I'm Learning!", Prensky maintains that kids "are almost certainly learning more positive, useful things for their future from their video and computer games than they learn in school!"

Prensky wants to ease parents' fears by describing how kids see gaming and what they learn. "[P]retty much all the information that parents and teachers have to work with is a lot of speculation, conjecture, and overblown rhetoric about the putative negative aspects of these games," he writes. Unfortunately, his counterstrategy is to throw together a similarly speculative mix in defense.

Prensky presents an opinionated argument filled with anecdotes, a few studies, and quotes pulled from published news stories. There is no evidence too specious: he cites a recent study that found younger, newer radiologists were more accurate in reading mammograms than older, more experienced doctors and asks, “Could the higher visual acuity gained from playing video games be at work here?” How can the reader know, when Prensky didn’t talk to the researchers to find out if the study was trying to answer this question?

He also takes the easy road in response to studies that find a link between aggressive behavior and violent video games: “Absolutely no one can say, when all the complex factors in a single child’s life are taken into account, whether any individual child will be negatively influenced overall.” Of course not. The question, however, is whether video games are a risk factor for aggression and, if so, to what extent.

Nor will Prensky concede that there could be anything wrong with new technology. Writing about cell phones, he says that “the first ‘educational’ use students implemented for their cell phones was retrieving information on demand during exams. Educators, of course, refer to this as ‘cheating.’ They might better serve their students by redefining open-book testing as openphone testing.” It is not hard to believe that children are learning problem-solving skills and hand-eye coordination from video games, as Prensky and others
have written. Nor are all video games about killing things. But parents who have concerns about potential negative effects will be hard-pressed to find thoughtful, well-researched answers here. —Aimee Cunningham

Pet Issue

Pleasurable Kingdom: Animals and the Nature of Feeling Good
by Jonathan Balcombe. Macmillan, 2006 ($24.95)

If you have ever scratched a dog’s belly as the animal lies, legs splayed, you would find
it hard to believe that the pooch was not experiencing pleasure. Jonathan Balcombe, who has tickled many a mammal, thinks so, too, and he rails at the reductionism of biologists who see animals as genetic automatons that seek little more than to eat, sleep and reproduce. Instead, he asserts, “We are evolutionarily continuous with the other beasts ... and we are now realizing that ours is a planet rich with other minds and experiences.”

Balcombe is an animal behavior research scientist with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in Washington, D.C. To back up his claim that all vertebrates, at least, experience pleasure, he presents hundreds of anecdotes about animals playing, eating, copulating, grooming, loving—and enjoying all of it. Most examples come from biologists observing or experimenting with an array of species from moles to whales, but Balcombe also quotes pet owners and talks about his own menagerie.

Interestingly, his best counter to the belief of some scientists that animal behavior is largely instinctual and in service of reproduction comes in his chapter on sex. In many species,
only a few dominant males gain access to females, but this fact scarcely means the others abstain from sex. To the contrary, Balcombe documents the widespread practice of homosexual couplings and masturbation. The only reward for these creatures seems to be pleasure. Because animals—at least mammals—can experience both pleasure and pain, Balcombe concludes that we owe them better treatment. He ends Pleasurable Kingdom with a plea for improving the lives of animals, from battery hens and pigs kept in dark concrete barns to the millions of lab rats consigned to wire cages.

Unfortunately, some bad stylistic and logical choices lessen the book’s impact. Balcombe lists far too many anecdotes and adds too little analysis. He also makes presumptuous
leaps: the fact that birds have brilliant plumage, and eyes to see other birds’ feathers, does not mean they possess an aesthetic sense. One story of a chimp supposedly watching an
African sunset is turned into an epiphany in which the ape is “contented with life.” Such unprovable assertions detract from an otherwise well-argued thesis. —Jonathan Beard

The Pillars of Personality

No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality
by Judith Rich Harris. W. W. Nor ton, 2006 ($26.95)

Where does adult personality come from? Why are we all different? These are the questions energizing Judith Rich Harris’s new book.

Harris, a former textbook author turned popular writer, dives right in, sharpening her focus by looking at identical twins. After subtracting the share contributed by their mutual genes—about 45 percent—studies show that adult identical twins are no more
alike in personality than people plucked at random from a crowd, even though the siblings
were raised in the same home, by the same parents, with identical schooling.

Where, then, do personality differences come from? Harris begins, in a savage fashion familiar to readers of her Nurture Assumption, by recounting factors that do not contribute to personality differences. She debunks dozens of studies by psychologists—especially the “developmentalists” and “interventionists” who believe that better parenting or school environments can affect how children turn out—by pointing out where they have fudged numbers and twisted results. She rejects the basis of psychoanalysis, stating there is no evidence that talking about childhood experiences has therapeutic value. She also maintains that learned behaviors do not readily transfer from one situation to another, noting that even babies behave differently to fit different environments.

To answer her opening questions, Harris then develops a complex scheme based on “the modular mind,” a framework set forth by Harvard University evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker and others. (Harris herself has no doctorate and is housebound by systemic sclerosis and lupus, two autoimmune disorders.) She describes three modules—the relationship system, the socialization system and the status system—and explains how each contributes its part to making us who we are. The relationship system starts in the cradle as infants study and learn the faces and voices of the people around them, collecting information that helps form personality. The socialization system adapts people to their culture. The status system takes all the information collected during childhood and adolescence and shapes and modifi es our personalities in accord with our environments.

Harris’s last chapter lays out her theory in tabular form, explaining how each module interacts with the others to produce our distinct personalities. It is lavishly footnoted,
like the rest of the book, shoring up her strategy of pointing out the failings of other models and then proposing her own. Her goal, she writes, is to explain the variations in personality that cannot be attributed to variations in people’s genes. After saying she believes she has succeeded, she throws down her gauntlet: “I will leave it to other people to test my theory.” —Jonathan Beard

Tough on Tough Love

Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids
by Maia Szalavitz. Riverhead Books, 2006 ($25.95)

In 1958 a residential treatment program for heroin addicts, called Synanon, initiated a radical methodology to break the addiction cycle. Using “attack therapy” in an environment of “tough love,” counselors forced drug users to alter their self-destructive behaviors. Such methods became so popular that in 1982 counselors Phyllis and David York argued in their bestseller Toughlove that families should also embrace harsh measures. Hundreds of tough love–style residential programs have since emerged. Yet no scientifically supportable evidence has ever shown that these methods are effective. In fact, some data suggest they may do harm.

In Help at Any Cost, Maia Szalavitz, a senior fellow of the Statistical Assessment Service at George Mason University, shows how “abusive, dehumanizing practices that reformers of mental hospitals and prisons have attempted to stamp out for centuries” have been repackaged and sold to desperate parents. “Thousands of well-meaning, caring, and intelligent parents have been taken in by a business that uses exaggerated claims of risk to teens to sell its services.” All of this has amounted to a multibilliondollar industry. This is a story, she says, “of splintered families; of parents convinced by program operators that extreme, even traumatically stressful treatments are their children’s only hope.”

Homing in on several leading programs, Szalavitz carefully documents cases of reckless punishment that physically and psychologically hurts youths. Military-style boot camps and wilderness programs that pursue extreme “rehabilitation” measures have left teens dead of illnesses and dehydration, spawning numerous lawsuits. Such “professional” programs operate nationally and charge college-equivalent tuitions. Yet there is no regulatory oversight or medical or legal evaluation of the quality, competency or effectiveness of such programs, even though they assume responsibility for the lives of minors.

Citing a draft consensus report by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, among other studies, Szalavitz says such programs simply do not work. The evidence that exists “offers no reason to believe that group detention centers, boot camps, and other ‘get tough’ programs do anything more than provide an opportunity for delinquent youth to amplify negative effects on each other.” Szalavitz concludes her book gently with practical guidance for parents of troubled teens, including ways to get more sophisticated help. Ultimately, she urges parents not to yield to desperation and to recall the leading principle of medical ethics: “First, do no harm.” —Richard Lipkin