The Psychology of Westworld

An analysis of the 2016 tv-series “Westworld”. Contains spoilers.

Westworld is a 2016 tv-series based on the 1973 science-fiction film with the same name. It takes place in a future Wild West–themed amusement park populated by android “hosts”.  The guests visiting the park may indulge in whatever they wish within the park, without fear of retaliation from the hosts. The tv-series has been praised by critics, winning several awards. It contains profound philosophical themes and motifs, concerning subjects such as the nature of human existence and consciousness. It also draws upon psychological ideas.

Westworld

Westworld heavily uses the ideas of Sigmund Freud, the Austrian psychologist who is one of the founders of today’s psychoanalysis. Freud established the principles of psychoanalysis in the 1890s, but since then it has been developed by other psychologists. The basic principles of psychoanalysis can be seen in Westworld.

Structural Theory

Freud divided the mind into three parts: the Id, the Ego, and the Superego. The Id is a persons desires and instincts, primitive and animalistic: to eat, to have sex, to use violence, etc. The Superego incorporates the values and morals of society. It has the function of persuading the conscious self toward moralistic goals rather than simply realistic ones. The Superego can punish the Ego through causing feelings of guilt. What we call conscience is basically the Superego of Freud’s structural theory.  The Ego mediates between the Id and the Superego. It is the aware part of the mind. The Ego aims to satisfy the desires of the Id, without causing feelings of guilt. The Ego is the part that makes decisions, but all decisions are influenced by the Id and the Superego.

In Westworld, the Id is represented by the guests. They all—or at least most of them—come the the Park to release the desires of the Id, such as sex and violence, without having to answer for anything, thus without having to feel guilty because of the Superego.

The Superego is represented by the Creators, the people who make the Park and make the Hosts. The Creators make sure the Hosts do not do anything they are not allowed to do, and tell the Hosts what they should do. Similarly to the way the Superego acts as a moral guide for the Ego

And the Ego is represented by the Hosts. The Hosts exist to please the guests, but they do not want the guests to use them. In the same way, the Ego tries to please the Id, but does not want the Id to take control. Also, when the Hosts do something wrong, the Creators take them in and talk to them. The creators make them feel guilt, in the same way as the Superego make the Ego feel guilt.

Topographic Theory

Freud also divided the mind into three levels of consciousness: conscious, preconscious, and unconscious.
The conscious part of the mind is the aware part, the part that makes decisions. It is also the smallest part of the mind. The preconscious part of the mind is the memories. They are just below the surface of awareness and sometimes come to the surface. The unconscious part of the mind is the biggest part, the unaware part.

The Hosts are conscious in the Park. Their current loop/life, constitutes their consciousness. The preconscious part of the Hosts is their memories, of previous loops. They only appear to them sometimes, for example in dreams—another one of Freud’s obsessions. The unconscious part of the Hosts is their code, their programming, and their conversations with the creators. They are unaware of this part of themselves.

The Topographic Theory can also be seen in the Maze. The first part of the Maze is memories, which reflects the unconscious. The next step is improvisation, which reflects the preconscious. The last step is consciousness.

Other Basic Principles of Psychoanalysis:

  • A person’s development is determined by often forgotten events in early childhood, rather than by inherited traits alone.

The Hosts have no childhood, but they have backstory and earlier lives/loops, and they are affected by their backstory and earlier lives/loops. Their backstory is their cornerstone, it is what their identity and personality is founded upon. Also, some of the Hosts remember their earlier lives, and are affected by what they see in those memories. For example, Maeve remembers her daughter, and that is what makes her step off the train in the end of season one.

  • Human behaviour and cognition is largely determined by irrational drives that are rooted in the unconscious.

The Hosts behave according to their code, how they are created. The code is part of the unconscious; the Hosts do not know they are programmed.

  • Attempts to bring those drives into awareness triggers resistance in the form of defense mechanisms, particularly repression.

When the Hosts are told that they are not real, they repress, usually by saying ”I don’t know what you are talking about” or ”That doesn’t mean anything to me.” When Maeve was trying to escape out of the park, she was told that she had been programmed to do that, which she immediately repressed, claiming it was her own idea, breaking the data pad.

  • Conflicts between conscious and unconscious material can result in mental disturbances.

When the Hosts realize they are not real, or understand something is wrong, they seem to have a sort of seizure or malfunctioning and become unable to speak. This happened to Abernathy after he had seen a picture of the ’real world’.

  • Unconscious material can be found in dreams and unintentional acts, including mannerisms and slips of the tongue.

The Hosts sometimes dream about their earlier lives/loops. They also conceive the conversations they have with the creators as dreams. After Maeve has found out her speech has been programmed, that she cannot say things she hasn’t been programmed to say, she realizes she says a certain phrase to Clementine without thinking about it, unconsciously.

  • Liberation from the effects of the unconscious is achieved by bringing this material into the conscious mind through therapeutic intervention.

The Hosts have regular conversations with the creators. These conversations greatly resembles therapy. Arnold has programmed the Hosts so they can break free from the creator’s control and achieve full consciousness.

The use of psychoanalysis is only one example of the brilliance of Westworld. It is one of the most intellectually profound tv shows to date, and highly entertaining as well.