Psychology's last stand: Making a difference in the zombie apocalypse

Ella Rhodes talks to psychologists in our end of days. Includes online extra.

On the third Halloween since The Wretchedness, we bring you this special report from one of the last remaining strongholds – the surprisingly sturdy offices of the British Psychological Society in Leicester. For this likely final issue of The Psychologist roving reporter Ella Rhodes travelled the UK at great personal risk in search of the few remaining psychologists. Finding but a handful, she asked them whether psychology can shed light in dark times.

After a three-day hike swerving the growing masses of undead in Northampton, I found Dr Andrew Clements in what is left of his office in the University of Bedfordshire – a workaholic even as the end is nigh. Before The Wretchedness, Clements was a lecturer in organisational psychology. He has now turned his hand to advising the myriad ad-hoc gangs that have sprung up. In the post-apocalyptic era, selecting a merry gang of nomads is a world away from the adverts and search engines of the before times. Getting selected to join a group of survivors is life or death – unsuccessful applicants are literally cast out into the hordes. And if you’re low on recruits, how can you recruit the ‘right stuff’ to join you?

Clements first suggests traditional ‘We need you’ posters displayed around small pockets of surviving civilisation. The only downside, of course, is these may need to be updated with new information or locations at potential cost to the existing troop. But Clements feels we can’t afford to be choosy. ‘While organisations pre-apocalypse often said they were looking for creative thinkers, people who could be managers or those who had the potential to grow within an organisation, a community now has quite different needs. You will want to recruit people who can perform maintenance work, people who can grow food and mend facilities. Long-term it’s worth thinking about who will educate the next generation, who might be good for law enforcement. A community needs a wide range of job skills but has a smaller pool of recruits who may not have obvious skills. There will need to be a focus on development of new community members.’ This may involve a shift in our focus from skills to more general personality characteristics: ‘with the long-term stress bracing just outside the walls, you need people who can maintain composure during stressful situations, get on with others and be fairly agreeable and altruistic. The apocalypse has thrown together people who may not have previously associated with each other, so the ability to manage conflict and difference is going to be crucial. But it’s not exactly a time for a lengthy process and psychometric testing… you’ll probably hire the majority of candidates as long as they’re reasonably competent and haven’t been bitten.’

It’s hard to believe that in the old times people watched zombie films for entertainment, but Clements said we can learn leadership lessons from them. The leaders of communities in these films are often egomaniacs: bad idea, says Clements. ‘Your community leader will need to be someone who appreciates the need for managing people. The kind of person who says “pull yourself together, get over it” won’t perform well. They need to be someone who wants to develop people, looks out for opportunities to draw on the strengths of community and help them get better at what they do. They also need to be sensitive to the group’s dynamics – inevitably there’ll be politics, and your leader should be able to navigate conflicts and resolve them, but they will need to be sensitive to the way things get done. And of course a leader doesn’t need to be an individual… there could be a distribution of leadership across multiple people in your community.’

How to train your zombie
Pre-apocalypse Dr John Hyland worked at Dublin Business School as a psychology lecturer. I eventually located him holed up in an old stable block throwing scraps of brain matter to a chained-up zombie while scribbling frantic notes. Since The Wretchedness Hyland has revisited a previous love of behaviourism in an attempt to figure out whether, and how, we can train the undead.

From his early observations Hyland realised zombies don’t feel pain, so training them via punishment seems impossible. However, Hyland has been attempting some basic operant conditioning with his own pet zombie – Gary. ‘From the before times I recalled episodes of The Walking Dead where people exploited zombies for their own means – for example by removing their teeth and arms and using them as a shield to get through large gangs of zombies. I began to wonder… what if we could actually train them to follow basic commands? Having read The Zombie Autopsies I knew they had an intact optic nerve, a heightened sense of smell, hearing and a functional brainstem. Given that in the before times there were some successes in training honey bees, I wondered if it was possible to teach a zombie to distinguish between two environments – acting more aggressive in one and less so in another.’

Hyland’s experiments so far have involved extensive work with Gary, who can now successfully remain relatively calm in familiar environments but becomes very aggressive in novel environments – particularly when presented with a morsel of brain. ‘There’s been very little research in this area, so I’ve been doing some quite novel experiments. I’ve also been considering Bandura’s work on observational learning – I wonder if by training one zombie in isolation then introducing him into a group whether he may affect the other horde-members’ behaviour vicariously. They’re driven by what other members of the pack are doing, responding to external, measurable, environmental cues. Could zombies actually be our saviours? Our last hope may be to divert hordes to less-populated areas using a single trained zombie.’

One big question that Hyland hopes to answer in his research is just how zombies learn. ‘There have been some controversial accounts from doctors who have performed autopsies, suggesting that zombies may have some kind of memory or homing instinct. We don’t know whether that’s the case; we think zombie memory is pretty limited. The big problem we have is being able to tell whether a zombie’s behaviour is controlled through forming new associations, or just by sensory associations and stimulation, or basic reflexes. The experimental research is out on that one, and so far I’ve had no response to my grant application.’

I asked Hyland for a few tips for any wannabe zombie-trainers who have survived long enough to read this. It goes without saying that you must approach with extreme caution, and Hyland also cautioned that ethics committees would take a dim view of anyone who began training before transformation was complete. ‘Once the groans and sighs of “brains” begin you can rest assured you are dealing with a full zombie. Try to get one with an intact head. Both eyes would also be ideal, along with ears and nose. We know from animal research that training in groups is far more difficult, so wait until you have an isolated zombie. Then it’s a case of having a good, rigorous procedure for training. Start by teaching them to distinguish between night and day – let them know, as if you were training a dog not to bark at night, that making noise during the day is fine but noise at night isn’t as it will attract other zombies.’

Developmental zombies
Child zombies have become an accepted part of everyday life – yet a heightened sense of wariness still surrounds them. Quicker, able to squeeze through smaller spaces and with a seemingly insatiable appetite for human viscera, this reaction is understandable. However, developmental psychologist Dr Candace Lapan’s curiosity got the better of her. Since the outbreak she has been exploring the effects of zombie transformation on the still-developing brain. I anxiously await her research updates via satellite call, the line fading with each conversation, from the remains of Wingate University in the USA.

So far Lapan has established that zombie children remain children in some ways – their cognitive and motor skills are less developed in comparison to adult zombies. Sightings of child zombies carrying around the heads of spookily similar-looking adults led Lapan to wonder whether they maintain attachments. ‘Young children are particularly reliant on their caregivers to meet their needs, and children therefore form an attachment with said caregiver which can be secure or insecure. These attachments are so salient, so ingrained, that zombie children appear to continue to be close with their caregivers after being turned – but this can vary depending on their previous attachment style.’ While securely attached zombie children will seek out their zombie or human parents – to join their horde or consume them – those with insecure attachments may have a more complex relationship with those who served as caregivers in the before times.

Lapan also wondered whether the optimism of youth would be maintained in zombiehood, and amazingly it seems it is… to a degree. ‘I wondered if pre-existing social cognition biases present in childhood would buffer the effects of being turned into a zombie. In early childhood, children’s world views are particularly positive (described by Boseovski, 2010). These pre-existing social world views seem to have an influence on individuals once turned, and optimistic children seem less vicious in our experiments.’ This is all relative though. A zombie of any age remains exceedingly violent – we cannot stress this enough.

Teenage zombies are another clear area of interest for our post-apocalyptic research community. As in the pre-Wretchedness days adolescent zombies have received rather a bad press with their extreme lethargy (even by zombie standards) and backward circadian rhythms. Another direction for research could be in examining teen zombie behaviour and whether, as with human teens, their behaviour becomes more risky in the presence of a horde who were a similar age at time of turning.

Gangs of human teens have also faced criticism since the first zombies emerged – actively seeking out hordes for the sole purpose of killing as many as possible for ‘points’. Some have pointed to pre-Wretchedness video games as a potential cause for this undoubtedly violent and compulsive behaviour. Others argue that ‘behavioural addiction’ is a shaky concept, and that we mustn’t lose sight of the fact
that such individuals are fundamentally trying to save the world.

Building resilience
My trek took me next to the wastes of Wales where I met Dr Luke Jefferies, formerly a clinical and abnormal psychology lecturer at Swansea University. He has found himself helping survivors process the events, focusing on ways to build resilience in the post-apocalyptic population.

In the before times much was written on resilience and how to encourage it. Jefferies pointed in particular to a 10-point guide released by the American Psychological Association. It suggests that we attempt to maintain our relationships with any remaining family members and friends and to avoid seeing stressful events as insurmountable problems – we have made it this far, after all. It is also useful, Jefferies said, to develop goals, move towards those and take decisive action where possible.

Jefferies said post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – an understandable psychological reaction to the apocalypse – can often result in so-called safety behaviours. ‘Avoiding places and people after the risk has gone can reinforce the risk of the trauma memory. According to the Ehlers and Clark model of PTSD, fear is central to memories being processed poorly, leaving the memory emotionally raw and likely to be triggered. When we are in survival mode, just trying to cope with a situation, our brains are not processing information in the usual fashion. It is like stuffing everything in a cupboard in a disorganised fashion. The disorganised collection of items in the cupboard can become unbalanced and force the cupboard door open, pouring all the contents back out.’

Following trauma there is also a risk that people may retreat from life in general. This again may lead to the worsening of symptoms and increase the risk of developing depression and anxiety. ‘If people are able to re-establish a meaningful and pleasurable routine they will help their recovery. Using mindfulness and imagery techniques may also help people manage and deal with their thoughts.’

Jefferies offered some final tips on the best way to protect yourself, from a mental health perspective, in our new society (if you can call it society). ‘Promote a sense of safety, calm, connectedness, hope, self-efficacy and community-efficacy. It is important to accept that the circumstances we’re now in can’t be changed, so we must all take care of our own minds and bodies, exercising regularly and paying attention to one’s own needs and feelings. Try to act with compassion to yourself and those around you.’

On my journey back to England I skirted Cardiff, avoiding the infamous (and growing) gang of aquatic zombies who have made their home in the bay. Sheltering in a dilapidated barn, I was surprised by Professor Chris Chambers, formerly of the University of Cardiff, who had somehow received word of my (likely final) quest for The Psychologist. He wanted to impart a vital message for the zombie research community. Chambers was recently named winner of the inaugural British Psychological Society Award for Outstanding Contributions through Zombie Research – conferring such honours being one of the many services the remnants of the Society have miraculously managed to maintain. He told me: ‘Society as we knew it is on its knees, I understand that… but that’s absolutely no excuse to let the move toward open science stumble. Your research methods and hypotheses should be registered, or at least scribbled on a piece of paper, prior to beginning your data collection. The potential for poor, or even fraudulent, statistics is at an all-time high but we must have high standards – even now.’

Of course, the very nature of scientific publishing has changed, but Chambers continued. ‘Don’t keep your research to yourself, or try to charge members of your community food or other resources to see it. Post it in plain sight somewhere central. Tell people you know, and hope they can pass on key messages before they succumb.’

Fighting back
Before the apocalypse hit, many of us would have imagined that dispatching zombies would have been as easy as knocking down bowling pins. But in reality taking the life of a humanoid is not so easy, even when they are already sort of dead. Dr Llian Alys [see also below], who pre-apocalypse worked as a research psychologist and behavioural science consultant within law enforcement, told me from the remains of her central London office that those in countries where guns are more readily available may be having an easier time with zombie elimination.

‘UK apocalypse survivors are at a disadvantage to their counterparts in countries where firearms are more accessible – we are having to use more “hands-on” methods like knives and blunt instruments. Such weapons are psychologically more difficult to wield given how “messy” and physical the act is and how close you must be to your opponent.’ Alys suggested we look to Albert Bandura’s model of moral disengagement for guidance. ‘Using dehumanising language to describe the zombies, such as using “it” not him or her; referring to them by their behaviour rather than personal characteristics, for example calling them biters; or referring to them using terms which convey disgust, for example vermin or scum; and using euphemistic language to describe what you do to them, for example wasting, cleaning or sanitising; all these strategies will help justify your actions and avoid guilt or self-censure.’

The zombie outbreak has brought out the worst in some people – step forward Declan Donnelly – but Alys admits that in a toss up between being predator or prey, it’s understandable to choose predator. ‘Some have found themselves behaving in ways that they would never have contemplated prior to the apocalypse, but their actions are often precipitated by one or a combination of factors, such as the trauma of the death of a loved one, lack of sleep and other hardships, and the total break-down of societal norms. Terror management theory suggests that the near-constant threat to life will make people aware of their own mortality. They may then be more likely to adopt punitive approaches to deal with those they perceive as transgressing their world view and beliefs. The necessity for weapons and therefore their increased presence may also instigate a weapons effect, making people more likely to behave aggressively.’

Alys suggests we need to set some moral ‘red lines’. ‘If we can just buy some time, rudimentary societies will be built and a “new normal” will establish itself.  When living becomes about more than staying alive – i.e. raising a family, finding self-fulfilment through work and pleasure – you need to be able to live with yourself and what you have done. In the meantime, consider Robert Cialdini’s principle of commitment and consistency – people will try to behave consistently with their previous behaviour, and when they have made small commitments they will likely follow them through for the sake of consistency… Being aware of this slippery slope to possible immorality may help you live within the moral red lines you have set yourself.’

Do zombies dream… of anything?
Timothy Verstynen (Associate Professor of Psychology at the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition at Carnegie Mellon University) and his collaborator Bradley Voytek theorised about the zombie brain long before brain-noshers became a reality. They used this knowledge to inform those of us who are left how best to survive a zombie horde encounter. Their theories are remarkably on the nose.

According to their pre-apocalypse theories and post-apocalypse analysis the zombie’s wide stance, lumbering walk with arms held out, and slurring speech indicate a strong cerebellar deficiency, part of a larger neurological syndrome they have dubbed ‘consciousness deficit hypoactivity disorder’. ‘The way that these zombies move is much different than disorders to other motor pathways in the brain like the basal ganglia, which is impacted by Parkinson’s disease, or cortical motor areas, which are typically affected by strokes. The only patients in the neurological literature that we’ve seen with similar symptoms are those suffering from damage to the cerebellum, a cauliflower-shaped lobe that sits at the underside of the brain, in the back of the head. While it is much smaller than the larger neocortex, the cerebellum contains half of all neurons in the brain so it is a tightly packed computational machine that is very sensitive to damage.’
But don’t be fooled. Despite this damage many areas of the zombie brain remain fully functional. ‘It seems that the primary sensory and motor regions of the neocortex are intact, as well as brain stem regions. Many of the evolutionary older parts of the brain seem to remain intact, thus they can still be very efficient hunters.’ (As we all know too well.)

In their pre-apocalypse book Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep? Verstynen and Voytek developed a set of clear neurological deficits that zombies have. ‘These include deficits in the encoding of long-term declarative memories, the inability to react to pain, deficits in impulse control and emotion regulation, deficits in the ability to control attention, and, of course, motor problems.’ From these deficits came some vital strategies on how to outsmart, or outrun, a zombie. Their first tip, which may surprise you, is don’t fight the zombies. ‘Zombies lack the necessary neural circuitry to process emotional reactions to pain. They just don’t care. So engagement is not advised unless you’ve got a clear head-shot lined up.’

Second, we should take advantage of the zombies’ short memory. ‘Due to damage to the neural systems that encode long-term memories – i.e. the medial temporal lobe – zombies can’t remember things for more than a few minutes at a time. Since they’re also very distractible, find a quiet place to hide until something else grabs their attention and they’ll soon forget about you altogether.’ Thanks to damage to the regions of the neocortex that control attention, zombies are also at the mercy of whatever grabs their attention at a given moment. The researchers suggest using fireworks, flash grenades or indeed anything loud and bright as a distraction device.

Finally, although zombies are slow, their endless stamina leads Verstynen to warn that a race with a zombie could be like the tortoise and the hare if you aren’t careful. He suggests mimicking zombies if we find ourselves in a particularly tricky encounter. ‘You can’t argue with a zombie – plain and simple. They can’t process complex language. And they don’t appear to rely on facial recognition. They rely on using other senses to distinguish between themselves and prey. You can leverage this to your advantage. If you have no other options, cover yourself in viscera, let your face droop, and lumber around moaning “brains” until you’ve quietly wandered away from the rest of the horde.’  

Speaking of which, the horde draws closer now. Our deadline approaches (hollow laugh). Unless… my notes from zombie-training Dr Hyland… have I missed something… ‘In our post-study debrief, we unfortunately experienced a 100 per cent fatality rate due to spontaneous cranial expulsion. As this effect was specific to scientific information in verbal form, further research will need to include due ethical consideration of the amount and complexity of methodological information imparted to the zombie hordes.’

All this time and we psychologists could have talked them to death?! Alas, it’s too late. They scratch at the door. Goodbye dear readers, keep up the good fight. Use your braaaains…

BOX: Are they communicating?
One of the puzzles that surrounds the undead is whether or not they can communicate. Establishing this has been a tricky but vital task for the zombie research community. Zombies are largely non-verbal (aside from the odd gasp of ‘brains’) yet seem to move together as a single swarm when they catch the smell of humans on the wind. Some have controversially suggested zombies share some kind of hive mind, while others say they simply react to stimuli in the environment with little awareness of one another. How can zombie researchers establish which is true?

Dr Arlene Stillwell suggested assessing whether zombies are sensitive to social or interpersonal (interzombinal) cues. One potential approach would be to take a leaf from the early psychologists’ book and create a maze for one horde of zombies, introduce these zombies to a new zombie and see if that individual solves the maze more quickly after contact with the maze group.

Observational research is almost certainly the safest approach going forward, but how much it will reveal remains to be seen. It would also be worth assessing whether zombies are sensitive to any human speech sounds or words. Even if they are, it is likely our screams of ‘no, no, no!’ will still fall on deaf ears.

Further research is needed
Research priorities suggested on the new social messaging system SANPIBTAZ (scribble a note, put in bottle, throw at zombie):

Professor Jean-François Bonnefon – Do zombies dream of undead sheep?
Dr Tom Stafford  – Acute projectile-induced head trauma and behavioural cessation in the domestic zombie: a before–after study.
Dr Tom Farsides – Cataloguing and critiquing what is most important about what I have learned about zombies in the past 12 months. Asking human others what they’ve learned and what they think is wrong/missing from my account. Asking what we need new knowledge FOR and what is most urgent for that.
Dr Pam Jarvis – Synaptic transmission, comparison with non-zombie.
Dr Jack Arnal – Memory, especially differences between implicit and explicit forms.
Peter Dahlgren – Do zombies retain a theory of mind? Or does it become a theory of brains?
Dr Nicola Abbott – Observational research on zombie group dynamics.
Dr Josephine Perry – Sport psychologists could be awesome at overcoming the zombies! We should set some amazing goals to defeat them, focus on the strengths we can utilise, analyse their competitive style to find a weakness and self talk ourselves into defeating them!
UWE Health Psychology – Some clear roles for Health Psychology here, from stress management to coping with illness, injury, visible difference and bereavement.

- Ella Rhodes was The Psychologist’s Journalist
[email protected]

Online extra: A forensic psychology perspective from Dr Llian Alys

For most people in the UK, it is difficult to imagine what it would be like to see the world crumbling around us; to see everything we have loved, worked for and taken for granted, destroyed. The closest experiences in recent UK history may be the bombing of cities during the Blitz, the aftermath of terrorist attacks or the destruction of homes through flooding and other 'acts of God'. The zombie apocalypse (particularly if it occurs as quickly as it does in the movies) will be a highly traumatic series of events. The most pressing issue will be staying alive but avoiding the zombies will be made more challenging by the other deprivations associated with an apocalypse (such as limited access to food, water, shelter, sanitation and medicine) and the longer we survive, the more pressing these secondary problems become.

Forensic psychology shines a spotlight on the extremes of human behaviour, the worst and the best; from the cruelty people inflict upon one another to the humanity and compassion of supporting people at their lowest, be they victims or perpetrators. As such, forensic psychology seems ideally placed to offer insight into how people might behave during a zombie apocalypse and how to survive it.

How to defend yourself against zombies

In your apocalyptic fantasies, you probably imagine that to protect yourself and your family, you would find your ‘inner warrior’ and start dispatching the undead, left right and centre. However, most of us would not find killing another human being that easy (see Grossman, 1996)… even if that human being is already dead. Zombies are not giant insects or aliens, they look like people (particularly the fresh ones)… and what if the zombie thirsting for your blood is a child zombie? While the extreme circumstances and deprivations of the apocalyptic world may decrease our internal inhibitions to some extent, it will still be challenging for some people to proactively attack zombies, at least initially. UK apocalypse survivors may also be at a disadvantage to their counterparts in countries where firearms are more accessible; we would have to use more ‘hands-on’ methods like knives and blunt instruments. Such weapons may be psychologically more difficult to wield given how ‘messy’ and physical the act is and how close you must be to your opponent (Grossman, 1996, and Holmes, 1985 discuss the ‘intimacy’ of such methods and their reluctant use by soldiers). 

To disengage from any moral self-censure, we can turn to Bandura’s model of moral disengagement for guidance (e.g. 1999, 2002).  Using dehumanising language to describe the zombies (such as, using ’it’ not 'him' or ‘her;' referring to them by their behaviour rather than personal characteristics e.g. ’biter’; or referring to them using terms which convey disgust e.g. ’vermin’ or 'scum') and using euphemistic language to describe what you do to them (e.g. 'wasting', 'cleaning,' 'sanitising') will help justify your actions and avoid guilt or self-censure. Practice, using mental imagery and observing and copying others may also help develop the psychological preparedness to defend yourself (e.g. Fitzwater, Arthur & Hardy, 2018; Barrett & Martin, 2014). It is unclear whether role models can be fictional (e.g. What Would Rick Grimes Do?) but there is at least one anecdotal example of a person taking courage from a fictional character when faced with danger (at a recent comic convention, a fan thanked horror movie actor Jamie Lee Curtis for helping him to survive a burglary! Sorace, 2018). Also, though the impact of media violence on aggression remains hotly debated (e.g. Anderson et al, 2017; Ferguson & Beresin, 2017), watching zombie movies and playing first-person shooter games may provide a psychological (and possibly physical) advantage.

Retain your humanity

Unfortunately, the zombie apocalypse will bring out the worst in some people. As with criminality in the non-apocalyptic world, drivers and motivations will be individual, complex and multi-faceted. A minority may take advantage of the chaos and lack of law enforcement to behave as they please and some will decide that in this ‘new world’ they are either predator or prey and to survive, they must become the predator. Most will not succumb to their darkest instincts but some may still find themselves behaving in ways that they would never have contemplated prior to the apocalypse, their actions precipitated by one or a combination of factors such as the trauma of the death of a loved one, the general break-down of societal norms or the impact of lack of sleep and other hardships.

Facing difficult life conditions and deprivation, individuals may join groups and gangs for stability, resources, companionship, belonging, protection and/or a sense of purpose, in the same way that people might be pushed or pulled to join violent groups or criminal gangs (e.g. Dunbar, 2016; Rizzo, 2003; Staub, 2001). While it is unlikely that normative views of murder, rape and torture will change during the zombie apocalypse (i.e. people will still generally consider them to be immoral), the context may provide individuals with a greater probability of encountering situations where such acts might occur and may provide a greater range of mitigating circumstances, justifications and excuses for such actions. Terror Management Theory (TMT) suggests that as the near-constant threat to life will make people aware of their own mortality, they may be more likely to adopt punitive approaches to deal with those they perceive as transgressing their worldview and beliefs,(see Arndt & Vess, 2008 for a review of TMT). The necessity for weapons and therefore their increased presence may also instigate a weapons effect, making people more likely to behave aggressively (e.g. Berkowitz, 1983, 1994; Berkowitz & LePage, 1967; Carlson, Marcus-Newhall & Miller, 1990).

If confronted by aggressive individuals and groups, it may be worth bearing some crisis negotiation principles in mind, for example, keeping calm and managing your own emotional reaction (e.g. Browning et al. 2011), stalling for time to allow emotional arousal to decrease and facilitate rational thought (e.g. Dolnik, 2004; Hatcher et al., 1998), creating options for mutual gain (e.g. Fisher, Ury & Patton, 2001; Gredecki, 2011) and helping the aggressive individual save face if he is a member of a group (e.g. Browning, Brockman, Van Hasselt & Vecchi, 2011).

It may be helpful to consider and determine one’s own moral ‘red lines’ early in the apocalypse. At the beginning, living day to day will be the challenge but time will pass and forms of rudimentary societies will be built and a ‘new normal’ will establish itself. When living becomes about more than staying alive (i.e. raising a family, finding self-fulfilment through work and pleasure), you need to be able to live with yourself and what you have done. With your red lines in mind, monitor and be aware of small transgressions or erosions of your values. Cialdini’s (2007) principle of commitment and consistency suggests that people will try to behave consistently with their previous behaviour and that when they have made small commitments they will likely follow them through for the sake of consistency. As an example, Horgan (2005) suggests that the pathway to violent extremism is a gradual one; inhibitions, doubts and self-censure are gradually eroded by small steps, actions and decisions which may on their own seem minor but gradually lead to greater immersion and commitment and make it more difficult to stop or disengage. You may initially only do what is necessary to survive but this may change day by day and you may face more challenges and moral dilemmas. Being aware of this slippery slope to possible immorality, may help you live within the moral red lines you have set yourself.

Prepare for the future

Once the shockwaves from the breakdown of society start to dissipate and the dust settles, humans will start cooperating to survive, using their intellect and collective capabilities to triumph over the ‘mindless’ zombies. Historically and recently, human beings have survived and overcome equally, if not more, inhospitable environments and it is a human strength that people can find meaning and positivity following and during the most distressing and hopeless of circumstances (e.g. Frankl, 2004; Ochberg, 1980; Speckhard et al., 2005). Forensic psychology practitioners will have an important role in the establishment of crime prevention, policing and justice systems in fledgling post-apocalyptic settlements and communities. They can also advise on situational crime prevention (see Tilley & Laycock, 2007); for example, high walls will keep out the zombies but they may also draw unwanted attention from marauding groups (cf. burglars as described by Bennett & Wright, 1984). They can also help people cope with the effects of their exposure to trauma. Research suggests that resilience in the face of traumatic experience is a common response (Bonanno, 2005) but given the multiplicity of traumatic experiences in a zombie apocalypse, the accumulative effects may overcome the coping ability of some individuals (e.g. Suliman et al., 2009; Gamache Martin et al., 2013). These individuals may need assistance to move from a 'survival mode' or mentality (e.g. demonstrating behaviours that are useful in dangerous situations but harmful in others, having little to no long term perspective, being hyper alert to threat; Chemtob et al, 1988) to one which allows them to live their life fully and thrive.

Forensic psychology professionals may also be needed to help people reintegrate into the community after they have committed terrible acts; this will involve preparing and supporting the community as well as the individual to increase the probability of successful reintegration (e.g. Derluyn et al., 2004, report that unsupportive communities are a barrier to the reintegration of child soldiers). Facilitating a return to routine and some sense of ‘normality’ (e.g. meals, sleep, exercise, employment, education) will help rehabilitation and reintegration for all but particularly for children (e.g. Arvidson et al., 2011; Betancourt et al., 2012; Bolton et al., 2016). Psychologists will then play an important role in monitoring members of the community for signs of trauma over the medium to long term (e.g. Campbell 2010 recommends this for victims of terrorism) and identifying, amongst the many who have experienced traumatic events, who may be most likely to have difficulties adjusting, such as those experiencing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or those who have experienced particular events (Bayer et al., 2007 and Derluyn & Broekaert, 2010 highlight these risk factors for adjustment difficulties in child soldiers while McFall et al., 1991, Monson et al., 2009 and Xue et al., 2015 report the same for adult war veterans).

Final note…

The zombie apocalypse narrative allows us to feel the fear, to debate moral quandaries, to consider our own ability to survive and to wonder what makes a person human. Similar to war in general (MacMillan, 2018), the zombie apocalypse brings out the best and worst qualities of human beings and we are fascinated by it. It is worth remembering however, that in the West, we (for the most part) have the luxury of experiencing this as entertainment. We should not lose sight of the fact that, to our collective shame, in other parts of the world human beings are enduring experiences similar to our fictionalised apocalypses.




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