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.

THERE ARE NO OTHER OPTIONS!

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.

Doctor Who Reminds Us That Anxiety Isn’t Something to Fear, It’s Rocket Fuel

Doctor Who just started series eight (“season eight” for the yanks) with a newly regenerated Twelfth Doctor played by Peter Capaldi. We’re a few episodes in and so far it’s been a bumpy ride. My favorite Doctor Who stories are about “the victory of intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism”, stuff that makes you think or gives you something to aspire to. I haven’t seen much of that yet. But this week’s episode, “Listen”, got very close. The Doctor did in seconds what I spend hours doing with my patients — teaching people that anxiety isn’t something to fear, it’s rocket fuel.

No spoilers ahead, just psychological analysis. 

“Let me tell you about scared...”

Doctor Who, Listen,   There’s so much blood and oxygen pumping through your brain it’s like rocket fuel. 

I’ll skip all the timey wimey plot details. Basically, The Doctor is investigating invisible monsters, the kind kids worry might be under their beds at night. Midway through the episode, The Doctor finds a young boy who’s just come face to face with such a monster. The boy’s obviously afraid. This is what The Doctor says:

Let me tell you about scared. Your heart is beating so hard I can feel it through your hands. There’s so much blood and oxygen pumping through your brain it’s like rocket fuel. Right now you could run faster and you can fight harder. You can jump higher than ever in your life and you are so alert it’s like you can slow down time. What’s wrong with scared? Scared is a superpower! Your superpower! There is danger in this room. And guess what? It’s you.

With this new way perspective, the boy is able to get through the situation, despite his terror.

Some have called this the “we have nothing to fear but fear itself” Doctor Who episode. But that’s not entirely correct — The Doctor tells us we don’t have to fear fear itself, we need to feel it.

As someone who’s spent their career studying anxiety and its treatment, I can tell you The Doctor is totally right.

Anxiety is Rocket Fuel

Emotions quickly communicate information. Sadness means a loss has occurred (your best friend moved away). Anger tells us we’ve been wronged (someone at work ate your leftovers without asking). Laughter lets people know that even though a social norm has been broken, things are okay (a friend walks, almost falls, but catches their balance right at the end). What about fear? It prepares us for danger.

When we feel the presence of something scary, our bodies turn on the fight or flight response. Its job is to gets us ready to battle nearby dangers, support people who need help, or escape to safety as quickly as possible. That’s why your heart beats faster, you breathe more quickly, your muscles get tense, and you start to sweat. All of these changes are the “rocket fuel” The Doctor spoke of, the things that help us run faster, jump higher, and fight harder.

Anxiety also warps your psychology. Your mind exaggerates details (making a scary dog look larger than it is), imagines the worst-case scenario (the dog is going to bite you and you’ll die), and forces you to ignore everything but the thing that scares you (you don’t see the dog is securely held by a leash).

In the short term, all of this is a very good thing and protects us from predators (lions) and dangerous situations (walking across a rickety old bridge). A normal amount of stress also helps us get things done, whether it’s studying for a test or paying the bills. Stress, fear, and anxiety are our companions. Without them, our species wouldn’t have survived for very long.

Research now indicates that stress is more than a survival mechanism. Psychologist Kelly McGonigal explains how stress also makes it easier to get support from friends and family in her fantastic TED talk. Here’s an excerpt:

[Oxytocin] is a stress hormone. It's as much a part of your stress response as the adrenaline that makes your heart pound. And when oxytocin is released in the stress response, it is motivating you to seek support. Your biological stress response is nudging you to tell someone how you feel instead of bottling it up. When life is difficult, your stress response wants you to be surrounded by people who care about you.

You Can’t Avoid Rocket Fuel, Better to Ride It Out

Doctor Who, Meditation on top of TARDIS outside Earth

If stress, fear, and anxiety are normal and helpful parts of the human experience, than why are anxiety disorders one of the most common mental health problems impacting children, teenagers, and adults?

Some people are more sensitive to anxiety. All those physical and mental changes we talked about, the stuff that comes along with the rocket fuel, those sensations are stronger in people who have a vulnerability to anxiety. Others have gone through difficult experiences — maybe they were bullied, saw a traumatic event where someone’s life was in danger, or were in a situation that went drastically wrong. There’s also the possibility that someone might not know what to do when they’re anxious and feel out of control when fight or flight is triggered.

When anxiety limits what you can do in your life, or makes everyday activities painful, that’s when you’ve got an anxiety disorder. Most people with anxiety disorders cope by avoiding situations that cause them distress (like Tony Stark in Iron Man 3). But there’s no way to completely avoid anxiety, it’s a normal everyday human emotion. Avoiding situations increases anxiety sensitivity, making the problem a lot worse in the long-term. What’s the solution? Experience the anxiety and ride it out.

This type of treatment is called exposure therapy. It’s based on the biological process of habituation, how humans get used to things that stay the same. Think about the last time you jumped in a pool. The water felt cold at first, right? But the longer you stayed in, the warmer the water felt. The actual temperature never changed but because you stayed in the situation your body got used to it. We use this same process in cognitive behavioral therapy to help people become comfortable with anxiety, accept anxious thoughts, and face anxious situations. It's the most effective treatment for anxiety disorders.

That’s why I love this week’s Doctor Who — it reminds us that everyone, including Time Lords, get anxious and that’s totally normal. In fact, it’s pretty cool and super helpful.


For more on anxiety, cognitive behavioral therapy, and exposure treatment, watch my interview with Huffington Post Live. To hear more about Doctor Who Series 8 and the Twelfth Doctor, download episode 32 of the Super Fantastic Nerd Hour podcast.

The Psychology of Cult TV Shows Live at San Diego Comic Con 2014

Image by  Booster Designs .

Image by Booster Designs.

Join me and a panel of therapists and scientists (mad or otherwise), including Dr. Janina Scarlet (The Superhero Manual), Dr. Travis Langley (Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight), and Billy San Juan (Alliant International University) as we discuss the psychology behind cult TV shows at San Diego Comic Con! Find out how TV shows might help us cope with painful experiences and what psychology says about the demons that live inside us.

Killing Someone Doesn't Make You Crazy in The Walking Dead's Zombie Apocalypse

The Walking Dead's Scott M. Gimple has done a fantastic job with the fourth season. The show continues to raise the stakes and weave in and out of the comic's continuity in interesting ways. I was especially interested in what was happening to the kids living in the prison and started writing an articled called How to raise a child in the zombie apocalypseAfter this week's episode, I completely abandoned that article and dove into the psychology behind what's become the most controversial event in the show's history. Spoilers ahead for The Walking Dead Season 4 Episode 14 – "The Grove".

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