Recently I wrote an article on the positive psychology of zombies, and I immediately realized that I was only telling half the story. I argued that the popularity and appeal of zombies was due to their perseverance. Unlike other mythical horror creatures, the zombies do not have super human powers or weapons to destroy their prey, it is their persistence and relentlessness towards their victim that is so terrifying.
But perseverance is not the only positive psychology lesson that we can learn from our undead friends. While it might be a bit much to argue that zombies are social creatures, they do demonstrate the power of having a large social network. Not only are zombies incredibly persistent in the pursuit of their goals, but they also find strength in numbers.
The fact that zombies are able to recruit hordes of their undead buddies to help them in their quest for live human flesh makes them much more powerful and terrifying. If only one zombie was chasing you, you could probably slowly back over it with your car, set the emergency brake, and leave the zombie safely pinned underneath. But as we learn from any zombie movie, when one zombie turns into ten and ten turns into 100, it becomes almost impossible to fend them off.
I’m currently reading Tribal Leadership by Dave Logan, John King and Halee-Fischer-Wright, which is about how people come together in groups around common language. (I’m guessing a horde of zombies would barely qualify for a “stage 1” tribe in the book, but give me a little latitude with this analogy.)
It makes sense for business leaders to understand the “tribes” that form in their organizations. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt describes it as “hive psychology” and suggests that humans have a real need to lose themselves in a larger social organism in order to truly thrive. “The self can be an obstacle to happiness” so sometimes it is only by immersing oneself into a group that one finds “the highest levels of human flourishing.” Other tribal psychology research suggests that cooperation and selflessness evolved as a way to promote group selection over that of individuals in the evolutionary process.
Zombie hordes are comparable to other social networks in another way. Just like zombiism is contagious, in Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives authors Nick Christakis and James Fowler show that a variety of things can be spread through a social network including health and happiness. Lie down with dogs and you wake up with fleas. Lie down with zombies and you wake up with a taste for human flesh. Who are you lying down with?
In researching this article, I found I’m not the only one to draw positive psychology lessons from zombie lore. Annie Passanisi has written a wonderful essay on using positive psychology to defend against a mob of “fear-mongering zombies.” Passanisi has developed a whole website (http://www.imcontagious.com/) on the viral nature of social networks, where she promotes the spread of ease, rather than disease.
Look around. The people around you may have a greater effect on you than you think. If you really want to change the world, you will have to think about how you can use the power of the hive (i.e. the power of a zombie horde) and immerse yourself in a group that shares your vision for a brighter future. Just like the zombie, individually, there is only so much you can do. But when one turns into ten and ten turns into 100, there is almost nothing you can’t accomplish.
References and recommended reading:
Christakis, N. A. & Fowler, J. H. (2011). Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives — How Your Friends’ Friends’ Friends Affect Everything You Feel, Think, and Do. Back Bay Books.
Logan, D., King, J. & Fischer-Wright, H. (2011). Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization. Harper.
I’m having trouble with idea of turning negative into positive here. Wikipedia suggests that the term zombie ‘is often figuratively applied to describe a hypnotized person bereft of consciousness and self-awareness, yet ambulant and able to respond to surrounding stimuli’. I am concerned that in the world of internet social networking it is easy to slip into a state on unconsciousness that is led by either false positive or false negative notions. Instead of asking yourself what is true for you, you can end up being carried along on the tribal desires which may or may not be based in reality. On Facebook, for example, you can only ‘Like’ something – which sometimes leads people to the oddness of ‘liking’ a note about some catastrophe or other in a person’s life. People also seem to ‘Like’ things that they haven’t read or have no real thought about but simply want to demonstrate that they are part of the scene.
I’m lucky to belong to a tribe (aquatic bodyworkers) that tends to the very positive. But sometimes this verges on what has been called spiritual bypassing, all love and light. I have a personal preference for that which has placed me in a few crisis situations when I simply refused to notice that things were really NOT good. I’ve been learning how to integrate the shadow material in myself and in our collective culture. Well, I can’t say I’ve integrated it but at least I’m beginning to see it.
So although I like the idea of emulating the perseverence and the spread of positive vibes, I’m wary of this zombieness. Or do zombies present us with our shadows? I love your blogs Jeremy and your commenters since things are considered and discussed in ways that do question. So, thank you for these provocative zombie posts.
Love your last paragraph which explains exactly why I’m here, reading you and interacting with the community you’ve created each week! 😉
Hi Sara, Thanks for being a part of my community (dare I say “horde”?) Sure it would be easy to write articles about all of the bad things about zombies, but much more interesting to ask what’s good about them. I find the popularity of zombies (which seems to be growing) a fascinating subject. But your comment is worthy of another article at some point on the problems with mindlessness–definitely another less favorable characteristic of our zombie friends.