"Snap the Loop: Lessons from HBO’s Westworld" by Bauback Yeganeh, Ph.D.

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“Humans fancy that there's something special about the way we perceive the world, and yet we live in loops as tight and as closed as the hosts do, seldom questioning our choices, content, for the most part, to be told what to do next.” – Dr. Robert Ford (Westworld, HBO 2016) 

Welcome to Westworld, a technologically advanced Wild West-themed amusement park populated by androids that are nearly indistinguishable from human beings. This popular HBO series pushes us to refine our distinctions between artificial intelligence and human consciousness. Androids in Westworld are programmed with specific behavioral loops that are triggered by environmental stimuli, including how human guests respond to them. Despite limited ranges of interactions that are confined to specific story-lines, the androids are programmed with a wide variety of expressions, subtle gestures, and words so that their interactions appear natural.

While artificial intelligence is a popular science fiction topic, it also provides a powerful analogy with which to understand human beings. Research shows that we spend 90% of our day engaging with the world automatically, or being on auto-pilot. Further, the classic academic debate on nature vs. nurture has revealed that we are born with certain genetic predispositions that develop based on the environments that shape us. What does it mean that we are born with dispositions toward specific personality traits and behaviors, while our environments significantly influence our behaviors? One takeaway is that by the time we are busy adults on the go, much of our thoughts and behaviors are on a loop, not unlike the androids in Westworld.  This potentially explains why patterns form in adults, and it may even explain why history repeats itself.

The good news is that we can benefit from this analogy. We know that the busier we keep ourselves, the less we are likely to have time for reflection and self-awareness, which are prerequisites to making intentional choices (the antithesis of auto-pilot). While many of our automatic thoughts and behaviors contribute to our successes, some play into our limitations.

Suggestions for snapping the loop:

1. Carve out time to reflect.

2. Identify patterns in your thoughts and behaviors. If you were an android in Westworld, what would your loops be? What triggers those loops? Are they working for you or would you like to update them? If so, to what?

3. Choose an intentional behavior within a recurring routine and practice it.