Starting with Encounter at Farpoint, at the very start of the series, when Riker first meets Data in the holodeck, Data, when asked if he considers himself superior to humans, says, "I am superior, Sir, in many ways, but I would give it all up to be human."

He has a desire, a want, and a longing to be human. Isn't this an emotion in itself? There's no reason or need for him to have such a desire. If it's programmed into him, he would be able to find it somewhere in his memory and perhaps (if it's not read-only) re-write it.

Where could this desire come from if it's not from envy or longing or some other type of emotion? Is it possible he had this and some other simple emotions all along?

  • 2
    The question isn’t whether he knew it. The real question is whether he felt it. May 6, 2015 at 8:46
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    “He has a desire, a want, and a longing to be human. Isn't this an emotion in itself?” — Luckily, we don’t really have a specific definition of emotions, or understand what they are, so Star Trek’s writers can pretty much just make it up as they go along. Sep 15, 2017 at 11:03

9 Answers 9


This has always bothered me. It is clear that Data does not experience immediate emotional states (fear, anger, sadness etc.) like we do. But he does appear to have long term motivations: a need for companionship (Tasha, Geordi, Spot), a need to live up to an ideal (humanity), self preservation (the Maddox trial), curiosity etc.

He also uses words such as "rewarding" and "distressing/disturbing". When he once lost his memory of being an android while attempting to recover a radioactive fragment, he exhibited behavior that could easily be labeled compassionate, sans his usual android-like expositions.

The long term motivations appear to be part of his programming that is meant to drive him to learn and develop, without which he would always remain as he was first programmed by Soong. The rest are simulations meant to lubricate his interactions with humans (such as the "modesty subroutine").

But until the emotion chip came along, Data never perceived emotions like we do. His programming merely suggested the actions/dialogue appropriate to the situation and he performed them; the intermediate step of feeling was absent.

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    I like the multi-tiered answer -- considering that there might be different kinds of emotions and that he might be feeling something like emotions, but not full blown and strong emotions.
    – Tango
    Feb 1, 2012 at 1:21
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    It's a recurring theme among 'emotionless' science fiction characters -- human-like androids, Vulcans and even the Prozium saturated population in Equilibrium ( en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Equilibrium_(film) ). Some sort of unconscious drive is always there.
    – HNL
    Feb 1, 2012 at 4:22
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    The concept of positive reinforcement as a superior behavior training tactic is high-school psychology stuff. I would imagine that Data's OS has a method (err, apparently he has subroutines. So we know SoongOS is not a Ruby script) that evaluates all manner of stimuli and offers 'rewards' for things which can be perceived as 'positive' or 'good' or whatever. I do not know what it means to Data to find something as being 'rewarding', exactly, but then that's the rudiments of emergent unique personalities, isn't it?
    – Stick
    Dec 30, 2013 at 16:19
  • I too like a multi-tiered approach. It's obvious that Data likes some things and dislikes other things, but that may be far from being angry, sad, or happy. Jun 7, 2015 at 20:53
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    I think the critical point here is that before the emotion chip, Data's "emotions" were essentially just acting, and they could not under any circumstances override his logical programming, The key to the emotion chip was that it allowed the emotions to overwhelm him, and actually be in conflict with the more logical side of his personality.
    – josh allen
    Dec 19, 2021 at 14:23

Data's, and by extension, the writers', concept of emotion is incorrect. The dichotomy of logic and emotion comes from the time of Aristotle, Manichaeism, and was supplanted long ago.

This is a deep, DEEP subject, but the one thing you can be sure is wrong is the Star Trek concept of emotion. For a quick reference of modern thinking on it see William James' bear. For a profound exploration of the subject I strongly recommend the course The Passions: Philosophy and the Intelligence of Emotions. Understanding this subject better has served me in ways far more useful than Star Trek trivia.

To address what specifically is wrong with Data's understanding - emotions are, put simply, the choices we make given natural impulses that supersede volition, e.g., being chased by the bear in the first link above. Data seems to have only muted forms of these impulses, but has fully formed EMOTIONS, in the sense of his choices that follow from them. What Data needs, and eventually receives, are more complete incipient emotional impulses.

Seen in this light, the writers lucked out on their simpler conception of emotion - it makes perfect sense for a being to long to experience their emotional impulses, their passion, in a sense - more fully and completely.

  • Do you have the name of the course? The links have changed.
    – Shane
    Mar 29, 2021 at 5:07
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    Link corrected. The name of the course is "Passions: the Philosophy and Intelligence of Emotions" by the late Robert Solomon. Mar 29, 2021 at 13:25

Data was programmed by Dr Soong to be more than the sum of his parts. One of the base functions of his operating system was to learn and grow as an intelligent life form. So to say he has the emotional desire to be human, I would think that it was just his programming trying to complete itself.

Of course, this could be a rudimentary emotion in itself as all humans have a desire to grow and learn to some extent.

So, perhaps Data was programmed with very few emotions that he himself wouldn't consider part of the human emotional spectrum.


Emotions are behavior modifiers, a game played by our genes to continually trick us into surviving and reproducing; Data does not share these functions. Since he's immortal, to an extent, the existential nature that an individual might suffer is removed somewhat proportionately. Therefore, I concur that although Data's character discovered patterns of habit that seem like emotions (like missing someone) that we find out those really aren't emotions as much as they are pathways of familiarity, and for example, if someone is missing, Data will experience a capacity to miss them. So Data's perspective helps clarify the nature of what is not an emotion.

As for his "desire" to be human above all else, since Data's major theme is "Pinocchio turning into a real boy" this is simply a prime directive programmed into his matrix - for the same reasons as Geppetto, Soong wanted his imagination to come to life. The "be a human" paradigm merely comes from Soong's preference. If Soong were a Klingon, then what "desire" would you speculate data would render?


I think what the writers were trying to do with Data, was make us question what emotions are in the first place. Is desire an emotion? I would say yes, and therefore Data definitely had emotions, but at the same time, the writers gave Data a very conservative understanding of emotion, making him believe it's all about the physical feeling we get, that he cannot. But at the same time, we get a glimpse that in truth he knows this too when he said to Lal that "Humanity is all about the struggle", that in his quest to be human, he has in fact already achieved it. I also think the writers were saying something about autism at the same time. That although people with autism don't seem to process emotions in the same way people without autism do, that they can seem robotic even, that doesn't mean they have no emotions, or that they aren't human. With Data, the writers were saying "we are all emotional beings, as long as we have a desire for anything, regardless of how we present or emotions, we all have them." In the same episode "the offspring" Data tells Dr. Crusher "I am not capable of giving Lal love" to which she responds "why do I find that so hard to believe?". This shows that the crew have a much more open idea of what love is than Data has himself, and they see clearly that Data loves Lal. Regardless of chemicals that influence behaviour, it is the desire for Lal's safety and well being that is the true measure of love, and Data clearly has that.


No, this is not a contradiction at all: Bettering oneself is an instinct, not an emotion shared across most intelligent life forms (in our universe as well as in the star trek universe).

  • 1) That means he'd have to see humans as superior, and he's stated he sees himself as superior in many ways, and 2) Then it'd either have to be in his programming or it would still be a desire, which brings it back to my original question.
    – Tango
    Jan 29, 2012 at 16:45
  • @TangoOversway: No, he does not have to see humans as superior. But he considers having the ability to experience emotions to be better than not having them (something a Vulcan would not see like that). Humans are only "superior" in this particular regard (according to Data).
    – bitmask
    Jan 29, 2012 at 17:15
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    Which, again, comes back to the original question. Where does that desire come from?
    – Tango
    Jan 29, 2012 at 17:28
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    I would think that he experiences this particular 'desire' as a simple set of numbers which he compares against numbers that represent other outcomes. With the emotion chip, it actually becomes a sensation which he perceives.
    – HNL
    Jan 30, 2012 at 4:08

Any hope of answering this question rests with an understanding of what emotions are. One way to look at it is from an evolutionary and biological point of view.

The modern human brain is the end product of numerous evolutionary steps, and that evolution is evident in its structure. Unique to humans are structures which are either smaller, far less developed, or absent entirely in other animals; these structures support logical reasoning. More ancient structures in the human brain, also present in all mammals, support behaviors associated with pair bonding and parental care. Even more ancient structures, present in reptiles, support behaviors including classic "fight or flight" responses.

The more ancient behaviors are associated with physiological/biochemical responses - the release of hormones such as adrenalin (fight or flight), and oxytocin (bonding), elevated heart rate, etc. No such response is associated with logical reasoning. These ancient behaviors/responses are what we commonly label as emotions. We perceive a distinction between emotional and non-emotional behaviors/responses because emotions are initiated by the more ancient structures of our brains, occurring outside (or beneath) conscious awareness and control. We are aware of them happening, but for the most part have no conscious control over their occurrence - we don't consciously decide to be angry or afraid. By the way, this confers a survival advantage because complex logical reasoning takes time and a "fight or flight" decision may need to be made and acted upon in a split second.

Computing devices as they exist in our modern world are entirely logical; Data is an extrapolation of our modern capabilities in computer engineering and robotics, so his behaviors (absent the "emotion chip") are predominantly logical. In creating Data, Dr. Soong conferred upon him a set of motivations - self-preservation, service toward humanity, self-improvement, and perhaps others, but Data's actions (again, absent the "emotion chip") always have a foundation in logic. By the way, there is a nod to Isaac Asimov and his "three laws of robotics" which imbues robots with a set of imperatives; Data at least implicitly follows these "laws". The "emotion chip" would seem to be about imbuing Data with some facsimile of what we experience as emotions - responses having no foundation in conscious or explicit logical reasoning. For what it's worth, "emotion" in Data could lead to behaviors in direct contradiction to any or all of "the three laws", or his normally "logical" motivations, and that can be seen in the "Generations" movie where his erratic "emotional" behavior interferes with his ability to fulfil his duty.

Absent the chip, Data had motivations, but depending on your chosen definition, didn't necessarily have emotions. His "desire to be human" isn't necessarily emotional... if he has a motivation for self-improvement, and logically reasons (never mind the path of that reasoning) that being "fully human" represents an improvement over what he currently is, then it could reasonably be stated (if not entirely accurately) that Data desires or aspires to be human, but without any emotional basis.

Also, let's not forget that Data's lines were written by fallible human writers who didn't always adhere to a show writer's guide and could always have slipped up when crafting dialogue. In at least one on-screen appearance, Roddenberry described Data as "Pinocchio" - an artifact which desperately desires to be human; his reference was somewhat flawed. Pinocchio was essentially a fully human mind/soul in an otherwise inanimate puppet - he craved a flesh-and-blood existence. Data sought to experience and understand "the world" as a human does, but from within his existing android body - to acquire what we call a soul.


"...i would give it all up to be human"

but why? did logic somehow find its way towards "emotion is better" perhaps this subroutine was programmed into him, so that actually he COULD assimilate. and this one program is registered to us humans as an emotion.

the chip is a bigger deal then the show even let on. Soong created a cybernetic human being, complete with emotive capabilities, and amplified by the calculative logic of data's mind. His emotions would evolve to have unmatched precision and accuracy. He could, in theory, become more empathic than Deanna.

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    This doesn't answer the question asked in any meaningful way.
    – Valorum
    May 28, 2016 at 11:16
  • thats its only registered to us as an emotion and not being an actual emotion doesnt answer this in a meaningful way. Maybe if you read it with a poem? jk It seems this one function "to give up all his advantages to be human" is a core directive that allows us to interpret him as expressing basic emotions.
    – user66788
    May 28, 2016 at 22:42
  • oh the other part... well... but its true!
    – user66788
    May 29, 2016 at 9:35
  • The point isn't about stating a truth, but in providing a well supported answer the question that was asked. If you want to discuss it, you can always join us for chat in the chat room, Mos Eisley.
    – Tango
    May 30, 2016 at 3:06
  • thanks for replying. I'm still learning this experience. my point is that Data’s right all along. that he never feels anything or experiences emotion of any kind. its merely learned behavior on his part of prime program to assimilate to being human. just like his father, who had human hopes of Data like becoming a scientist. he seemingly, programmed him to be a 'pinocchio' awaiting and preparing to become a real boy. which is completed when he's finally being given his emotion chip, or at least was suppose to get it.
    – user66788
    May 30, 2016 at 9:03

This is probably a restatement of things other people have said in the thread, but, I think Data experiences approximations of emotions that arise from the judgments he makes based on his computational analysis of his experiences. We do the same thing, but the survival imperative means our brains release hormones like cortisol or dopamine to physically compel us to take actions that might be considered inefficient, irrational, or unnecessary for an android to do. That internal system of punishment and reward is bypassed and replaced by a more acutely computational mode of perception.

So, where we might experience pleasure from success or fortune, Data might experience a state of sufficiently completed "tasks", a state that he might record as having occurred and adding it to a running "score". This isn't a human emotion, but it no less influences his life and decision-making in a similar way to emotions. He'd do the inverse with uncompleted tasks. Tasks that he generates based on inbuilt programming and all goals that arise from how he interacts with the external environment. That's how he can express his state in terms like "desire" or "distress". They're just the best and most succinct way to convey the state of a computational system. Which, interestingly, is what our words for emotions essentially are. Emotions are not observable things, but subjective, complex experiences we attempt to summarize with the emotional vocabulary.

  • 1
    This seems to merely restate the question being asked
    – Valorum
    Dec 18, 2021 at 22:53

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