Zombies and COVID-19

Pandemic stories prepare us for the real thing.

Posted Sep 22, 2020

Although human beings share certain features with other animals, one unique thing that distinguishes us from other species is our capacity to generate and consume stories. This fact inspired my colleague, Jon Gottschall, to coin the label Homo fictus (storytelling man) for human beings.

Stories are relevant to human psychology in so many ways. Our memory for stories is far superior to our memory for isolated facts. I wrote about this in a previous blog post on the psychological significance of myths. In our efforts to understand what is going on around us, we constantly talk to ourselves, narrating what is happening, much like a sports analyst. This self-talk can injure our mental health when our stories are negative. On the other hand, when the stories we create contain coherent patterns, this can make life feel more meaningful.

Fictional stories represent some interesting puzzles for psychological researchers. One such puzzle is why we create (and enjoy hearing about) made-up creatures such as vampires and zombies. In a previous blog post, I suggest that vampires represent exaggerated versions of actual, real human qualities, and that the vampire bite could be based on an ancestral memory of alpha males literally biting the shoulders of females (as baboons still do today). Ethologists refer to exaggerated versions of real events as supernormal stimuli. Where certain natural stimuli attract our attention, supernormal versions of these stimuli fascinate and bewitch us to the point where we cannot turn away from them.

Another research question is whether fiction is just escapist entertainment or whether fiction plays some practical, useful role in everyday life. My sense is that this is not a question with an either-or answer. Good fiction is certainly entertaining. But it is not a mindless waste of time. Rather, we can learn valuable lessons from fiction that help us navigate real life. Much of the traditional good guy versus bad guy literature reinforces moral behavior that leads to life success. That is what research on Victorian novels indicates.

 HFCM Communicatie/CC BY-SA 4.0
Coronavirus COVID-19.
Source: HFCM Communicatie/CC BY-SA 4.0

Even movies with fantastic, imaginary creatures such as zombies can teach us valuable life lessons. Some of my colleagues and I had a hunch that apocalyptic (end-of-the-world) movies with alien invaders, zombies, or mutant viruses have the potential to teach us how to survive a global disaster. We therefore conducted a study, just published, inquiring about our research participants' past consumption of a variety of movie genres, and measuring their psychological resilience shortly after it became clear that COVID-19 was becoming a worldwide pandemic.

As we predicted, the more of these disaster movies people had seen, the more resilience they showed during the current pandemic. (The same was not true for nonrelevant movies such as romance or comedy.) Our interpretation of these results is that fiction is a simulation of reality in which people can practice responding psychologically to kinds of events that they haven't yet experienced in real life. When those events do occur (OK, not zombies per se, but a runaway virus that is killing thousands of people), those who have rehearsed for such events in movies are better prepared than those who have not.

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