Mild spoilers ahead for Westworld episode nine.
If there’s anything Westworld’s Dr. Robert Ford can’t stop harping on about, it’s that his beloved robots are more morally pure than humans, untainted by selfish desires and the willingness to inflict pain. His belief seems to be rooted in the hosts’ “Good Samaritan reflex,” which, as Maeve illustrated in episode nine, supposedly causes them to step in when a person is about to be harmed. Ford, in this case, may have a point about his hosts’ moral superiority, because research has shown that real-life humans sure as hell wouldn’t do the same.
In the episode, Maeve, having just sliced through Clementine 2.0’s neck after viscerally reliving the memory of slitting the Man in Black’s throat, is grilled by Bernard about her uncharacteristically violent actions. “A cognitive error triggered my Good Samaritan reflex,” she says, explaining that she killed Clementine 2.0 because she looked like she was plotting a harmful move against a pair of Westworld’s guests.
Would humans act similarly? While there are definitely instances of humans performing compassionate deeds unnecessarily — just take Professor Brian Levin, who saved the life of a KKK leader who, ideologically, probably wanted him dead — such heroic acts are relatively uncommon.
The concept of the Good Samaritan reflex was explored by Rutgers University psychologist David Goleman, Ph.D., in his book Emotional Intelligence and later in a TED talk entitled “Why aren’t we more compassionate?” In the talk, he cites a famous 1973 Princeton Theological Seminary study known as the “Good Samaritan study”: Participants were told the parable of the Good Samaritan — that is, the Biblical story of a suffering man who was ignored by two religious men and helped by a philistine stranger — and then were deliberately exposed, one by one, to a person doubled over in pain. While the Good Samaritan reflex programmed into one of Ford’s hosts would have led them to help, the participants didn’t react in the same way, regardless of whether they’d heard the story. In his talk, Goleman explained what happened:
What turned out to determine whether someone would stop and help a stranger in need was how much of a hurry they thought they were in — were they feeling they were late, or were they absorbed in what they were going to talk about. And this is, I think, the predicament of our lives: that we don’t take every opportunity to help because our focus is in the wrong direction.
Goleman isn’t saying the Good Samaritan reflex doesn’t exist in humans; social neuroscientists, he notes, have argued that our default “wiring” should lead us to empathize when we see people in need. He argues that the problem isn’t with our instincts so much as it is with our perception — that is, you can’t empathize with what you don’t really see. He makes a good point; because we are often so preoccupied with personal concerns, we don’t always see what’s going on around us. But Westworld’s hosts, with their infinite capacity to take in and assess their surroundings, are equipped to see and respond to everything, so they’re inherently less likely to miss out on a chance to help than we are.
That is, assuming their programming hasn’t been hacked: In episode nine, Maeve, who appears to be the first of the hosts to gain sentience, making her more like us in her behaviors and motivations, didn’t exactly seem to be telling the truth about her Good Samaritan reflex kicking in. Instead, she used it instead as a cover-up for her increasingly glitchy, selfish, and faulty brain — just like a human would do.