Black Mirror Reflects the Psychology of 21st Century Technology

You either have no clue what Black Mirror is or you’re a rabid fan of it.


Black Mirror came out in the U.K. in 2011 and was recently released in the U.S. on Netflix. It’s an anthology series, like The Twilight Zone, with every episode focusing on a unique story and cast. There’re only 7 episodes so you can binge watch it in a day (here’s a guide to do that).

The series explores how technology is changing society. Charlie Brooker, the show’s creator, explained Black Mirror as the reflection “you’ll find on every wall, on every desk, in the palm of every hand: the cold, shiny screen of a TV, a monitor, a smartphone.”

There’s nothing like Black Mirror on TV. It’s the smartest science fiction I’ve seen since Battlestar Galactica’s reboot. It’s also the first show to really get 21st century technology. Check out what Wired had to say:

These episodes don’t scream “TECHNOLOGY IS BAD!!!” They’re not too far removed from contemporary life, and they’re not too familiar, either. Instead, they quietly, diligently burrow into the heart of what’s so terrifying about tech to begin with: our tendency to make stuff that caters to our worst selves. And that, friends, is what dystopian sci-fi is all about.

This is why I’m so obsessed with Black Mirror — it reveals dark truths about human nature and warns us about what might happen if we aren’t careful.

I’m going to expand on that and explore the psychology of Black Mirror. I won’t spoil the episodes — they work best if you go in without knowing what to expect. If you’ve seen the show, you’ll know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, hopefully this will convince you to give it a try. Just skip episode #1, "The National Anthem", because no one likes it. The rest are awesome though, I promise.

Without eye contact humans become inhumane

Black Mirror - The Waldo Moment

"The Waldo Moment" shows us how easy it is to insult someone when you’re sitting behind a screen. We see the same type of stuff happen with Facebook bullying, Twitter GamerGate death threats, blog post comment flame wars, and Xbox Live hate speech.

What is it about the internet that makes it easy for humans to become inhumane? No eye contact!

Empathy, the ability to understand what other people are thinking and feeling, happens when we see other people. Here’s how it works:

  1. You do something hurtful.
  2. You see that the other person is hurt.
  3. Mirror neurons (empathy brain cells) detect their pain and make you feel bad.
  4. You stop the thing that hurt the other person and (if you’re nice) apologize for your actions.

None of this happens on social media. You don’t see the emotional impact of your actions. Without eye contact, your mirror neurons have nothing to do. No empathy.

You can predict when this is going to happen using my formula for online rage:

(Anger + Anonymity) - Eye Contact = Internet Trolls.

Psychologists have a name for this phenomenon — the nasty effect (a.k.a. the best psychological term EVER).

What’s the solution? I don’t have a good one — it’s very difficult to maintain the privacy of the internet while also promoting empathy. Creating self-governing communities where diversity of thought is rewarded and trolling is penalized is the best option we’ve got (for now).

Agreeing to a small thing makes it easy to agree to a big thing

Black Mirror - Fifteen Million Merits

“Fifteen Million Merits” takes on a lot of topics including reality TV, online avatars, freemuim games, and a little bit of Kickstarter. Dr. Jamie Madigan has covered most these including the psychology of video game avatars, Candy Crush, and Kickstarters.

What I want to highlight is the “foot-in-the-door technique”. It’s an old sales tactic that’s grounded in science. Get people to agree to a small request and they’re more likely to agree to a big request.

Maybe a friend doesn’t have HBO and asks if they can come over to watch Game of Thrones with you. You have fun and it feels good to share the awesomeness of Westeros with them. A few days later, they ask you for your HBO Go password. This is where the foot-in-the-door technique kicks in. You’re more likely to say yes to them because you want to stay true to what you've done in the past. I explore much more about this phenomenon (cognitive dissonance) in in my article on why people deny science and this episode of The Psych Show.

The foot-in-the-door technique is very profitable. President Obama’s 2012 campaign made a lot of money by getting you to open their emails, donate a small amount, and then ask for more money later on. Kickstarters projects succeed because once you’ve donated money you’re more committed to getting others to donate too. After you've invested a lot of time into a free game, spending some money to level up isn’t that big of a deal.

Revisiting memories changes them

Black Mirror - The Entire History of You

What if you had the ability to replay any experience you’ve ever had in your life? That’s the premise behind "The Entire History of You", my favorite Black Mirror episode.

Memories aren’t a perfect recording of what’s happened in the past. Each time we think of something, new information gets combined with old memories. Think of memories like a live concert - the same song always sounds different depending on the venue, how the band is performing that day, and how we feel at the concert. There are infinite ways in which we experience the same memory.

How does this fit in with “The Entire History of You”? Even if you had a perfect recording of what happened in the past, you’d never have a perfect memory. Each time you’d play it back, your experience of that memory would change based upon how you’re feeling, who’s with you, and what’s happened since the recording was made. The more you’d revisit the memory, the more it would change. Certain details would stick out, others would be forgotten, and false memories could easily be created if people lie about what’s happening in the recording.

Relying on recordings also gets in the way of forming memories. That’s why Instagramming every moment of your vacation is a bad idea – you’re not going to be fully aware of what’s happening around you. Practicing mindfulness and taking photos of certain details you really want to remember is a much better approach.

One more thing – obsessing over every detail of everything you’ve recorded, that could lead you to experience a symptom of depression called rumination.

You are what you post online

Black Mirror - Be Right Back

Can you recreate someone based upon their online identity just like “Be Right Back” (and while we’re at Caprica)? Yes, for the most part.

Researching how people use the internet is difficult. Science is slow – research takes a lot of time to develop, get funded, cleared by ethics boards, and analyzed. Meanwhile, technology develops quickly. One day everyone’s talking about Meerkat the next people have moved on to Periscope. But based on what we know now, the way you use the internet is a good reflection of who you are.

The strongest relationship seems to be personality and social media. The updates you post and the things you like are a good reflection of your basic personality – how much you want to be with people, how trusting you are, the stability of your emotions, your ability to organize, and your curiosity. Social media can also predict your gender, religion, sexual orientation, and how much you use drugs based on things like whether or not you like curly fries and thunderstorms.    

While all this stuff is important, there’s much more to you than your personality and demographics. What you've done in the past isn’t always a good predictor of what you’ll do in the future. Your actions are a complicated mess of what you've learned, how you’re feeling, what’s happening around you, and your immediate thoughts. Your internet profile doesn’t have access to all that data, at least not yet.

Here’s how this does impact you right now. Companies are already using Google searches to screen applicants. It probably won’t be too long until your Facebook likes impact your credit score and your tweets influence your health insurance premium. Then there’s the pesky question of who owns your social media after you die...

Being recorded changes your behavior

Black Mirror - White Bear

What happens when people take photographs and videos of you on their smartphones (like "White Bear")? Something called objective self-awareness.

This happens whenever you see your reflection in a mirror, realize you’re being watched in a bank, or see a photo of yourself on social media. You compare how you think of yourself to how you actually are. Most of the time this leads you to change something. Maybe you fix your hair, act more professional, or get stuck thinking about a specific part of your body.

Technology is increasing objective self-awareness and with wearables, drones, and live-broadcasting gaining popularity, things are going to get worse. For more on this topic, check out my video on how technology is turning everyone into a celebrity and the paparazzi

Self-awareness makes artificial intelligence alive

Black Mirror - White Christmas

The most recent episode of Black Mirror, “White Christmas” touches on the ethics of artificial intelligence. It’s a popular topic right now as Her, Chappie, Ex Machina, and the upcoming Avengers: Age of Ultron tackle similar issues.

The big question is this: how will we know if an artificial intelligence is alive? Futurist Martine Rothblatt, a pioneer in the field of cyber consciousness, believes objective self-awareness is the test we’ll use to figure this out (check out her SXSW keynote for more on that). Does the AI understand what it is? Does it value its life? If so, how does it want to live? Like all basic human rights, Rothblatt believes artificial life should have the choice to be in the type of state it wants to be. The problem is as cyber consciousness gets close to human consciousness, it’s going to be very hard to know if the AI is mimicking humans or if it is really alive.

This moment of technological singularity could become the greatest test humanity has ever faced – how will be treat a species that is just as intelligent as us? I’m hoping for more of a Star Trek: The Next Generation outcome and less of a Terminator future.

There’s a lot more I could say about Black Mirror, the psychology of technology, and where we’re headed as a species. But I’ve had my say – what do you think? Are we doomed to live in a dystopian science fiction future or will all this technology usher in an era of peace and prosperity? Let’s discuss in the comments below. 

For more on Black Mirror, check out my review on Super Fantastic Nerd Hour. To detox from all this scifi, watch the hilarious Black Mirror: In Real Life.

Superman's Greatest Power is Empathy


For the past few weeks I’ve been detoxing from a Star Trek overdose by diving into superhero mythology. After reading a bunch of comics and watching cartoons, TV shows, and movies I’ve realized that empathy is the most important part of a superheroes's psychology. And there is no one more empathetic than Superman. 

Empathy Leads to Helping

Superman Helping in Action Comics #1

Empathy helps us understand what others are thinking and feeling. When someone is suffering, empathy leads to sympathy (a concern for others). Combine sympathy with a sense of responsibility to do something, and you get altruistic (helping) behavior. Empathy is so vital to our survival that we have specialized brain cells called mirror neurons that replicate the experiences we see in other people.

Superman uses empathy to understand the frightened face of a Metropolis citizen, realize they're in danger, and feel enough sympathy to come to their rescue. Without empathy, Superman would just ignore people in need of help. 

Humans experience different degrees of empathy. Some struggle to understand the motivations of others and have less mirror neuron activity (like those diagnosed with Autism). So what is it about Superman that allows him to have super-empathy?


Man of Steel Young Clark Kent

Temperament is a big part of empathy. Two important parts of temperament are how strongly you react to your environment and how long it takes you to calm down. Children who can control their emotions are more empathetic and experience more sympathy. Think about the last time you were really angry – being clouded by very strong feelings probably made it very hard to even think about what other people around you were feeling. While genetics heavily influence your temperament, the environment in which you grow up also plays a major role.

A healthy temperament is important to the origin of all superheroes. Clark Kent's adopted parents, Jonathan and Martha Kent, taught him the importance of patience, emotional control, diligence, and encouraged him to help others. Superman had the power to hurt others as a child, but he didn't because his genes and his parents helped him develop a calm temperament.

Compare that with the budding supervillian from Looper – the Rainmaker. He was overwhelmed by his emotions, acted immediately without thinking, and couldn't develop empathy for anyone outside of his caregivers. Combine this type of temperament with extraordinary telekinetic powers and you've got a very dangerous situation.

The Developing Teenage Brain

Clark, Jonathan, Martha Kent. 

As adolescence begins, parents play an increasingly important role in shaping the temperament of their children because teenage brains are rapidly changing

After puberty, the teen brain becomes wired to overestimate rewards. As a result, teens respond very quickly to new information in their environment. That's why we learn so quickly as teens and why teens are vulnerable to becoming addicted to drugs, video games, and other pleasurable stuff. At the same time, the region responsible for planning, understanding consequences, and controlling emotions is still being built (and isn't complete until our 20s). This explains why teens do stupid things - their brains are wired to have an accelerator but no brake. Too much acceleration, too little braking, and you don’t get much concern for others.

While this type of development helped humans become the smartest species on the planet, it requires supportive parenting during the adolescent years. Teens need opportunities for real-life successes and failures under the protection and supervision of adults. Otherwise, teens never learn how to apply the brake. 

To see how Clark learned to regulate himself and avoided becoming a delinquent, check out the TV show Smallville. I’m not a fan of the monster of the week storylines, but I loved how the Kents epitomize the type of parents teenagers need. They listened to Clark, encouraged him to explore his Kryptonian identity, placed appropriate limits on his powers, implemented consequences when he broke the rules, and expressed their love and concern for him. This helped Clark master his superpowers (accelerator) without getting himself into too much trouble (brake). 

To see what happens when parents of teens with superpowers are too strict, absent, or permissive, check out last year’s Chronicle. This fantastic film accurately depicts the tension between rewards and consequences in teenage brains. The teens became addicted to developing their powers (accelerator) but were grossly underprepared to deal with the repercussions of their actions (brake). I won't ruin the story for you, but let's just say things don't end well. You can't completely blame their moms and dads, but you gotta wonder what would have happened to them if their parents were more like the Kents.

Connection to Humanity

Superman and Lois Lane flying scene.  

One of the biggest criticisms of Superman is that he's too unrealistic, a boring do-gooder with no real personality depth or failures.

Critics point to Watchman's Dr. Manhattan as a more realistic god-like "super-man". Dr. Manhattan has almost no humanity, no empathy, and doesn't worry about killing humans or letting people die. He can manipulate matter (including his own body), has a non-linear perspective of time, sees parallel universes, and is almost devoid of emotions. He doesn't look human, think like a human, and has developed a “callous-unemotional” personality. He's described as "[knowing] how everything in this world fits together except people."

And that's exactly why the comparison doesn't work. Superman spent his whole life developing a connection to humanity. Unlike Dr. Manhattan, Superman looks like one of us (the more something looks like us, the more empathy we have for it). He thinks, feels, and acts like humans. He lost his biological parents because their planet was destroyed and he spends each day of his life ensuring the same thing doesn't happen to the people of Earth. That’s a lot of sympathy!    

Yes, Superman's almost too perfect, but he gives us something to aspire to – the idea that anyone who develops a connection to their community is capable of incredible acts of heroism. 

This is what I'm hoping to see in Man of Steel - a film that recaptures our connection to the Superman (something the past three films failed to do). If the story focuses on Clark’s loneliness as the last son of Krypton, the humanity of Jonathan and Martha Kent, and Superman’s sympathy for humans, it’ll be successful in rekindling our empathy for this superhero.