The Evolutionary Psychology of the Zombie Apocalypse
Applying what we know about fear and disgust to a very unlikely event
Posted Sep 12, 2013
Don’t worry – as a statistician, I put the likelihood of an all-out zombie apocalypse at very very close to zero – seriously, no reason to panic! This said, one of my recent students, Paul, once engaged me in a provocative conversation about the evolutionary psychology surrounding the idea of a zombie apocalypse – intriguing enough for me to write a blog post on it.
According to Paul, there are lots of folks out there who are preparing for a zombie apocalypse – and, at the very least, lots of normal folks refuse to go to the now-popular-for-some-reason zombie walks, zombie 5Ks, zombie festivals, and so forth. Most attendees often report being “creeped out” by the whole thing (in spite of knowing, in fact, that these events actually include FAKE zombies!).
As to why the zombie meme (i.e., idea or concept) has started to catch on as of late, your guess is as good as mine – but armed with my evolutionary psychology toolbox and my handy dandy PhD, let me put out some thoughts regarding the evolutionary psychology of the zombie apocalypse:
- Fear of predators is a basic element of the psychology of nearly all animals (see Geher, 2014). This is why you might get creeped out if you find a large pile of grizzly bear scat in the woods on a hike in Alaska – and why mice generally try to avoid cats – and so on. Just imagine a zombie coming at you. Not only are they predators (yup, they live on human brains – ouch!) – but they apparently cannot die – they are, thus, uber-predators. How could we not have evolved to be scared of that!
- Across the globe, disgust reactions are similar. Paul Ekman and his colleagues (e.g., Ekman & Keltner, 1997) documented that the facial expressions associated with disgust are fully consistent across varied cultures. In their research, one of the most powerful classes of stimuli that consistently triggered a disgust response pertained to corpses (across various cultures) – and this makes good evolutionary sense. Dead bodies quickly become ensconced with bacteria and other micro-organisms that can bring about disease and that represent hurdles to survival. We evolved to be disgusted by corpses - such a disgust reaction is adaptive. And, you got it, zombies are corpses!
- Zombies band together. Seeing one zombie is usually a good predictor that more zombies are en route! The survival-impeding implications of this feature of zombie-ness are obvious. If one zombie elicits fear and disgust (each of which represents a basic evolved human emotional state, btw), then what of 100 zombies? Or 1,000? Or a million!?!?!? Yup – lots of fear and lots of disgust!
Well, the good news is that, to my knowledge, no evidence of the existence of real zombies has ever been documented – so, again, don’t panic! But this said, if an all-out zombie apocalypse ever happens to transcend the odds and take place at some point, make sure that your autonomic nervous system (which controls your fight-or-flight response for stressful situations) is in tip-top shape, and run like the dickens!
And if you have nothing to do in October and you find yourself near some of the creepier woods of the Hudson Valley, you should join in the Ulster Corp Service Sprint Zombie 5K – I did it a while ago, and I’ll tell you what – this thing is creepy as all get-out!
Ekman, P. & Keltner, D. (1997). Universal-Facial-Expressions-Of-Emotion In U. Segerstrale & P. Molnar (Eds.) Nonverbal communication: Where nature meets culture. Pp. 27-46. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.