Here’s a thought exercise: you wake up one day and check the news. An unknown virus has emerged in a faraway country and is making headlines. You don’t think much of it and go about your regular life. Weeks later, you see more news about this disease becoming deadlier and more infectious than previously assumed. Pictures of overcrowded hospitals burdened with bedridden patients circulate social media; experts warn about the world-breaking potential that this phenomenon could have if it reached other countries. What would you think from the comfort of your home, where everything remains just as it was?
And then, the virus arrives in town. Schools close, businesses suspend activities, officers prompt people to stay home. Supermarkets are emptied as people frantically hoard supplies for months at a time. Everyone panics at the sound of coughing or the mention of fever. In the span of a few months, a previously negligible pathogen has caused the world to crumble.
Congratulations: you are now a part of the newest zombie apocalypse movie!
Pandemics have long had a place in pop culture as a means to explore our anxiety surrounding the breakdown of society. Zombie stories, in particular, allow us to face such scenarios and experience existential dread from the comfort of our homes.
Unfortunately, the world has been forced to experience its own modern pandemic. COVID-19 has challenged the way we normally assess our social structures. It has thrown many people into the existential anxiety akin to that which zombie movies exploit for entertainment. Now that we have seen the real-life depiction of a pandemic and how it truly affects our behaviour, we ask: Just how accurate are the zombie stories when it comes to predicting the apocalypse? Our response: they’re precise, but not by much.
Allow us to explain.
Pop fiction may not predict the future, but the fact that the public can relate to some popular works indicates that they might have some insight into human psychology.
Zombies and COVID-19 have a close relationship; first encounters with them are marked by denial, which rapidly escalates into panic and fear from others. Survivors then abandon civilised behaviour and justify all kinds of antisocial behaviour with the pretext of outlasting the apocalypse. These characteristics make the zombie genre a wonderful niche to study the transformation of social dynamics and behaviours in the presence of a major existential risk.
Factor 1: Uncertainty
Most countries have imposed weeks of full or partial lockdown to contain the spread of COVID-19. The lack of foresight regarding when people could return to their routines generated uncertainty. Uncertainty, in turn, led to anxiety, and this spawned a bunch of irrational reactions like hoarding, discrimination, and aggression. However, as inconsiderate as these examples are, they do demonstrate how humans try to compensate for their psychological and social needs during critical periods.
Unsurprisingly, a huge instinct of humans is to ensure survival. Novel situations like COVID-19 or a zombie apocalypse can back us into a corner and force us to suppress rational decision-making and streamline our priorities towards self-sustenance. This “survival mode” is linked to the over-activation of our sympathetic nervous system, which translates to more stress and a constant state of alert. And that’s not a pleasant state to be in, which is why people resort to hoarding. It makes us feel safer, less stressed, and actually protects us in an emergency.
If hoarding is a natural response to a state of crisis, why is it so criticised? The short answer is “because society says so”. As a social species, human beings thrive when they work together, and have employed shaming (and punishment) for millennia to ensure that everyone acts in the best interest of the group. In modern days, that takes the form of backlash over social media and lengthy Twitter debates.
People will continue to hoard for as long as they are worried. They will also continue to shame others who take more than what they consider a fair share. Both are normal and adaptive behaviours that have evolved to balance one another out.
Factor 2: Fear
Another mutual central emotional response during a pandemic and a zombie apocalypse is fear. Humans, like other animals, possess a set of defensive systems for combating ecological threats. Negative emotions resulting from threats can be contagious and fear can make threats appear more imminent. The experience of fear and threat impacts how we perceive ourselves and react to others, particularly towards out-groups. And what is more foreign to us than zombies?
The classic “us” vs. “them” way of thinking occurs in such situations and clouds people’s rationality to great extent. For instance, the threat of an illness often increases ethnocentrism, which is the tendency to protect our ethnic group. Greater fear and perceived threat also increase intolerance toward outgroups. Highlighting group boundaries can lead us to see others as ‘less human’  and punish them. While this may be acceptable and even encouraged in a zombie apocalypse, it may not be the best reaction in the current pandemic.
Factor 3: Social Norms
A person’s behaviour is also influenced by social norms, which are essentially what they believe others approve or disapprove of. The main motives to abide by these norms are the desire to learn from other people, and to gain affiliation or social approval. Although people are influenced by norms, their perceptions are often inaccurate. For example, people can underestimate health-promoting behaviours (eg. hand washing) and overestimate unhealthy behaviours.
Some factors stop people from protecting themselves: (i) people do not understand the risks they run, (ii) it goes against human nature for people to shut themselves up in strict isolation even as a means of protecting others, and (iii) people often unconsciously act as a danger to themselves and others.
This is where fiction and reality part ways. When people suffer from an infectious disease, it is unlikely that they run around trying to infect all the healthy humans they encounter. The scary part of a real-life disease is that sufferers are significantly weakened—and victims claimed by the virus do not run in herds to feed upon the living in the real world (at least, not yet).
The main interest of zombie outbreaks for epidemiology is not, however, the “coolness” of a post-apocalyptic world. The study of popular culture descriptions of fictional crises represents an extremely useful tool for exploring existential risks. Science fiction provides a lot of settings in which various scenarios can be tested. Do you want to know what would happen if the sun blew up? Just use your imagination; you’ll come up with a half-accurate prediction.
The same thing happens when we compare zombies to COVID-19; we put some distance between the real world and ourselves. This allows us to see the facts for what they are without falling into the anxiety of wondering whether we (humanity) will make it through. The real purpose of zombie stories is, after all, to reflect on mankind’s greatest fear and to own it through entertainment.
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