Surveillance Psychology Hints at the Reason for 'Westworld' Data Collection


The mantra that “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” drives millions of happy-hunting tourists to Nevada. The same goes for Westworld. For those feeling shackled to normality, the slogan is a promise that they can cut loose without judgement; in turn, billions are generated in tourist revenue. But at its core, it’s a false promise: Laws still apply in Vegas and Westworld, and staying aware that there’s always someone watching could, in both places, determine your fate.

But first, slight spoilers for Westworld Episode 2 below. If you haven’t seen it, then these violent delights will have violent ends.

Psychologists have shown, time and again, that we act differently when nobody’s looking. That’s plain in Westworld, where guests are told they may freely indulge in their deepest, most hidden desires, whether that’s getting tangled up at the Mariposa or shooting up Confederados. But in episode 2 of Season 2, we learn that Westworld’s promise of freedom is no better than that of Las Vegas: Guests in the park are being watched.

As we learn in a key flashback scene, this proves to be a selling point for Jim Delos, William’s future father-in-law and early investor in the park. Aware of how morally twisted people can be when nobody’s watching, Delos and William see a prime opportunity to collect precious, incriminating data. “This is the only place in the world where you get see people for who they really are,” William says. “Nobody’s watching — at least, that’s what we’re telling them.” We don’t yet know how this data will be used, but it must be pretty damn important if Delos Inc. refuses to save present-timeline Charlotte until she gets that data out of the park.

That data would be incredibly incriminating. In the real world, years of psychology research have demonstrated that our perception of privacy is indeed one of the biggest factors shaping behavior. Because if no one is watching, no one is holding you accountable.

William: "How can I go back to pretending when I know what this feels like?"


Not surprisingly, people have been shown to act more morally — and conservatively — when they think they’re being watched. There doesn’t even have to be an actual human being watching them: A 2011 Australian study, for example, showed that an image of eyes or an image of flowers could determine whether or not a study subject would condemn behavior as socially ‘bad.’ Participants who saw either of those images next to photos depicting cheating or keeping money found in a lost wallet were more likely to rate the situation as morally unacceptable.

Peter Abernathy may very well be storing information secretly taken on guests.


Just as William asserts that hosts are merely mirrors of guests’ behavior, mirrors have been shown to influence behavior too. A famous 1976 psychology experiment showed that kids were less likely to sneak some candy out of a bowl if a mirror was placed next to it. The reflection of their own faces, the researchers explained, kept them in line. You could argue that Dolores was at one point a mirror to William, revealing his best self. That changed when he came to the conclusion that Dolores was just “a thing”; then, she lost her moralizing power — and he began acting like a kid without a mirror.

A Frontiers in Psychology study in 2015 pretty much recreated the moral experiment at Westworld, testing whether people who knew that they were being watched would show changes in their emotional processing and impulse control when viewing porn. When participants thought they were not being watched, their faces definitely reflected the fact that they were watching porn; but when they we told that their expressions were being monitored by a webcam, they were able to completely hide those expressions.

“Together, these findings demonstrate that the interaction between emotional arousal and impulse control can be dependent on one’s state of self-consciousness,” the study authors wrote. “This study highlights the effect of the mere presence of the experimenter may have on the participant’s cognitive performance, even if it’s only a webcam.”

If Delos Inc.’s endgame really is to collect incriminating data on their guest’s true selves, then they really have set up the perfect scheme: People really will live large if they think they’re immune to surveillance and judgment. But if they knew the hosts around them were collecting information on whatever they do, they would probably think twice before putting on that black hat or not.