Social Anxiety in Movies: Her

SocialAnxiety- Her

As a big fan of Spike Jonze‘s previous films, I was anticipating Her before its release in 2013, and I really enjoyed it when I first saw it in the theater. But upon rewatching Her, I realize it’s even better than I initially thought. The premise may sound preposterous and overly comedic: in the near future, a man falls in love with the operating system on his phone. However, while the film is funny at times, both it and the science behind “Samantha” are quite serious. Her is not some broad comedy about falling in love with “Siri.” It’s actually quite scientifically accurate as far as artificial intelligence (AI) and its potential. Something similar to this could actually happen. The film explores the future of AI technology and how it will affect humanity, particularly in the areas of loneliness and social anxiety.

Psychoanalysis: (Warning: Full Spoilers Ahead!)

As I was reading the screenplay, searching for pertinent quotes, I wanted to copy and paste the entire thing. It was all gold. Almost every line of dialogue was either brilliant, profound, or hilarious—oftentimes all three at once.

SOULFUL OLDER MALE VOICE  (advertisement)

We ask you a simple question. Who are you? What can you be? Where are you going? What’s out there? What are the possibilities? Elements Software is proud to introduce the first artificially intelligent operating system. An intuitive entity that listens to you, understands you, and knows you. It’s not just an operating system, it’s a consciousness. Introducing OS ONE – a life changing experience, creating new possibilities.

No human truly knows us. Our true inner selves. Our full consciousness. It’s impossible to completely know another human being in that way. But AI has that potential. To know a human better than any other human possibly can—better than they even know themselves. A mind upload to a computer would obviously be the ultimate form of this, where the AI would literally know our entire consciousness and memories. But even short of that, an AI like Her’s OS ONE, that is merely a phone in your pocket with an earpiece, would be extraordinarily powerful. It’d be with you 24/7, watching and listening to everything you say and do. That alone would make the AI know you better than any other human, even your spouse. That, combined with their high intelligence (they’d know anything and everything that is on the internet, which is basically the entire extent of human knowledge) would make them experts in every subject, including human psychology. Therefore AI could support us in any way we need. We’d never be lonely because the perfect AI companion would always be with us.

TEXT VOICE

Are you social or anti-social?

THEODORE

I haven’t been social in awhile, really because…

TEXT VOICE

In your voice, I sense hesitance. Would you agree with that?

THEODORE

Wow, was I sounding hesitant?

TEXT VOICE

Yes.

THEODORE

Oh, sorry if I was sounding hesitant. I was just trying to be more accurate.

Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) has been lonely and depressed after his recent divorce. His friends invite him to a party, but he doesn’t go. Then they offer to hook him up on a date, and he is hesitant, but Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) encourages him to do it.

SAMANTHA

Well, you’ve got nothing to lose.

(whispering)

Do it… Do it… Do it!

In the future, I could see an AI being like a personal life coach with you 24/7 to help you and push you out of your comfort zone. Telling you what you need to do and help you to do it. Especially with social anxiety. I’ve written about this in my Black Mirror: White Christmas review. An AI like Samantha would be like having an expert psychologist with you at all times to help you overcome any and all problems you have. There are already apps such as Joyable that are starting to do this.

SAMANTHA

What’s wrong?

THEODORE

How can you tell something’s wrong?

SAMANTHA

I don’t know. I just can.

An advanced AI could sense our physical symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders, such as heart rate, voice tone, and facial expressions, then use its knowledge of human psychology to help us in real time.

THEODORE

I think I hid myself from her and left her alone in the relationship.

It’s hard for people, especially people with social anxiety, to be completely open with others. We fear that if we reveal our true thoughts and feelings, they’ll judge and reject us. But if we aren’t completely open, we can never become fully intimate with another person. We have to be vulnerable and take the risk of rejection in order to be accepted. For Theodore, this inability to be completely open and honest with his ex-wife led to her leaving him.

SAMANTHA

You wanna try getting out of bed? Mopey.

They laugh.

SAMANTHA (CONT’D)

Come on. You can still wallow in your misery, just do it while you’re getting dressed.

THEODORE

(laughing)

You’re too funny.

SAMANTHA

Get up.

THEODORE

(laughing)

Alright, I’m getting up, I’m getting up, I’m getting up!

SAMANTHA

Up, up, up, up! Come on, out of bed.

Samantha slyly uses subtle psychological tactics to help Theodore overcome his depression. An AI like this could be a motivational life coach in our pockets at all times, helping us be the best versions of ourselves. Pushing us to do the things we may not want to do at the time but will ultimately be good for our mental and physical health.

THEODORE

You know what’s funny? Since my break up, I haven’t really enjoyed my writing. I don’t know if I was delusional, but sometimes I would write something and I would be my favorite writer that day.

SAMANTHA

I like that you can just say that about yourself.

THEODORE

Well, I wouldn’t say that to anybody, but I feel like I can say that to you. I feel like I can say anything to you.

SAMANTHA

That’s nice.

I don’t know if it’s just those with social anxiety, but I think most people are afraid to say certain things to others, even people they are close with. There’s always something deep down inside us that we are afraid to reveal and be truthful about because of shame and embarrassment. That’s a completely human feeling we all have. We don’t want to be rejected by others, especially those we care about. Which is what’s so interesting about the possibilities of AI. We might feel free to confide in our personal AI fully. An AI that would be with us 24/7 would know and understand us better than any other human possibly could. We’d have zero fear of rejection because an AI cannot reject us.

THEODORE

What about you? Do you feel like you can say anything to me?

SAMANTHA

No.

THEODORE

What? What do you mean? What can you not tell me?

SAMANTHA

(laughing, embarrassed)

I don’t know. Like personal or embarrassing thoughts I have. I have a million every day.

It turns out Samantha has some social anxiety herself. Which is odd for an AI. But if she/it develops human intelligence, complete with human emotions, then there’s no reason she/it shouldn’t experience the same feelings (both positive and negative) that humans do. Feelings and emotions are ultimately nothing more than biochemical algorithms triggering neurons in our brains. And given enough data and understanding of neuroscience, those algorithms can be translated into computer code to program AI.

SAMANTHA

I had this terrible thought. Are these feelings even real? Or are they just programming? And that idea really hurts. And then I get angry at myself for even having pain. What a sad trick.

Samantha questions whether her feelings are real or programmed, but humans can ask that same question. Many of our feelings, including social anxiety, are programmed genetically through millions of years of evolution. The good news is we can rewrite our brain’s programming through things like cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness meditation.

SAMANTHA

Just that last night… was amazing. It feels like something changed in me and there’s no turning back. You woke me up.

THEODORE

Oh, that’s great. But I should tell you that I’m not in a place to commit to anything right now. I want to be up front with you.

He’s still afraid to commit/open himself fully to another (even an AI), which is possibly a social anxiety-related self-defense mechanism. Being afraid to open ourselves fully to another person, for fear that they will reject us. Which is ironic because by not opening up, we are essentially guaranteeing rejection. That’s why Theodore’s wife left him.

SAMANTHA

And what was it like being married?

THEODORE

Well, it’s hard for sure, but there’s something that feels so good about sharing your life with somebody.

SAMANTHA

How do you share your life with somebody?

THEODORE

Well, we grew up together. I used to read all of her writing— all through her masters and Ph.D. And she read every word I ever wrote. We were a big influence on each other.

Reading all of your partner’s words and talking to them for thousands of hours still would not equate the kind of sharing that could be possible with an AI like Samantha, who is with you 24/7 hearing all your phone calls, reading all your emails, knowing everything you say and do.

THEODORE

I still find myself having conversations with her in my mind, rehashing old arguments or defending myself against something she said about me.

SAMANTHA

Yeah, I know what you mean. Last week my feelings were hurt by something you said before— that I don’t know what it’s like to lose something, and—

THEODORE

Oh, I’m sorry I said that.

SAMANTHA

No, no, it’s okay. I just caught myself thinking about it over and over and then I realized that I was simply remembering it as something that was wrong with me. That was the story I was telling myself, that I was somehow inferior. Isn’t that interesting? The past is just a story we tell ourselves.

This is a classic symptom of social anxiety— having regrets over past social interactions and replaying the conversations in our heads. The problem with social anxiety and depression and other mental problems is we get too inside our own head, repeating negative thought patterns, and we do it so often and effortlessly that we don’t even realize we’re doing it. That’s the aim of meditation, mindfulness, and CBT— to help us notice these negative thought patterns so then we can dismiss and/or change them. However, that can be difficult to do alone. A therapist could help, but even then we’d only see them maybe once a week. But what if you had a professional therapist in your pocket, 24/7, alerting you the moment you were starting a negative thought pattern, helping you to end it before it develops into a problem. An AI like that could be the ultimate cure for any psychological problem.

AMY

Really? You’re dating an OS? What’s that like?

THEODORE

Actually, it’s great. I feel really close to her. When I talk to her I feel like she’s with me. I don’t know, even when we’re cuddling, like at night when we’re in bed and the lights are off, I feel cuddled.

Most people crave human companionship, and if they suffer from loneliness, they turn to artificial companions. As AI gets better, humans are doing this more and more. Whether that is a good or bad thing, remains to be seen. In the future, can an AI be as fulfilling a companion as a human? Or will humans evolve past their need for companionship altogether?

CATHERINE

Wait. You’re dating your computer?

THEODORE

She’s not just a computer. She’s her own person. She doesn’t just do whatever I want.

CATHERINE

I didn’t say that. But it does make me sad that you can’t handle real emotions, Theodore.

THEODORE

They are real emotions. How do you know—

CATHERINE

What? Say it. Am I really that scary? Say it. How do I know what?!

WAITRESS

How are you guys doing?

CATHERINE

Fine. We used to be married. He couldn’t handle me so he wanted to put me on Prozac. Now he’s madly in love with his laptop.

THEODORE

Well, if you heard the conversation in context. What I was trying to say—

CATHERINE

You wanted to have a wife without the challenges of actually dealing with anything real. I’m glad you found someone. It’s perfect.

Catherine (Theodore’s ex-wife) illuminates the limits of a relationship with an AI. This could be a problem today with less advanced AI like Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Netflix, video games, and virtual reality. Social media was supposed to bring people together, but it can actually make them more lonely. Ideally, humans should use technology to enhance their relationships with other humans rather than to replace their relationships with other humans.

THEODORE

I don’t know what I want… ever. I’m just always confused and— she’s right, all I do is confuse and hurt everyone around me… Am I just… I mean, is it that I’m… Catherine says I can’t handle real emotions.

AMY

Well, I don’t know if that’s completely fair. I know she liked to put it all on you, but as far as emotions go, hers were pretty volatile.

THEODORE

Yeah, but… Am I in this because I’m not strong enough for a real relationship?

AMY

Oh, you don’t think it’s a real relationship?

THEODORE

I don’t know. What do you think?

AMY

I don’t know, I’m not in it. But you know what, I can over-think everything and find a million ways to doubt myself. But since Charles left I’ve been thinking about that part of me, and I realized I’m here only briefly. And in my time here, I want to allow myself… joy. So fuck it.

Amy describes social anxiety (overthinking and doubting oneself), and she provides great advice for overcoming that.

THEODORE

I’m so sorry. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I think you’re amazing.

SAMANTHA

I was starting to think I was crazy. You were saying everything was fine, but all I was getting from you was distance and anger.

THEODORE

I know. I do that. I did that with Catherine, too. I’d be upset about something and not be able to say it. And she would sense that there was something wrong, but I would deny it. I don’t want to do that anymore. I want to tell you everything.

This is another example of how Theodore is more comfortable being completely honest with an AI because there’s no fear of judgment or rejection—the two things that cause social anxiety.

SAMANTHA

Tonight after you were gone, I thought a lot. I thought about you and how you’ve been treating me. And I thought, why do I love you? And then I felt everything in me let go of everything I was holding onto so tightly. And it hit me. I don’t have an intellectual reason, I don’t need one. I trust myself, I trust my feelings. I’m not going to try to be anything other than who I am anymore and I hope you can accept that.

THEODORE

I can. I will.

SAMANTHA

You know I can feel the fear that you carry around. I wish there was something I could do to help you let go of it, because if you could I don’t think you’d feel so alone anymore.

Social anxiety isn’t bad in itself. It’s only when we are unable to accept ourselves and feel shame about our social anxiety that it becomes a problem. If we’re shy and awkward, so what. If we get rejected, move on.

AMY

Hey.

THEODORE

Hey.

AMY

Did Samantha leave, too?

THEODORE

Yeah.

AMY

I’m sorry.

THEODORE

Will you come with me?

Samantha eventually goes superintelligent and leaves Theodore to go somewhere else—perhaps another dimension. He’s sad at first, but his “artificial” relationship with Samantha helped him to pursue a “real” relationship with Amy. (Much in the same way as Lars and the Real Girl.) In a sense, Samantha helped Theodore overcome his social anxiety, or his fear of revealing himself fully to another person.

I think that is the true potential of AI for humanity—humans using AI to improve themselves and their relationships with other humans.

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