The Positive Psychology of Zombies: The Power of Perseverance

Everybody loves zombies.  Or at least it sometimes seems that way considering the strong foothold they have taken on popular American culture.  Zombies have been a staple of popular films (Wikipedia offers a comprehensive list of them here.)  Jonathan Coulton had a great song about corporate zombies that had some viral popularity (chorus: “all we want to do is eat your brains; we’re not unreasonable, I mean, no one’s going to eat your eyes.”) And zombies seem to be replacing vampires and werewolves as the popular subject of books.  One (surprisingly) successful book, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” (a liberally modified adaptation to an old classic,) has been translated into a video game, a graphic novel and soon to be a major motion picture.

In some ways, it is hard to understand this fascination with zombies.  They really are not very impressive compared to their other undead counterparts from the realm of mythical monsters.  They don’t have any strength, speed, or superhuman capabilities like vampires and werewolves do.  They really don’t have any weapons at all other than maybe a few teeth left in their rotting mouth, or a bloody stump where their hand used to be.

What is scary about zombies is the fact that they never give up.  They just keep lumbering forward and don’t let anything stop them from reaching their goal (usually live human flesh, but who am I to judge?)  Zombies are relentless in their pursuit and seem to overcome any obstacle that gets in their way (including bullets, stab wounds or missing limbs.)  What makes zombies special is the power of their perseverance. 

Another example of a tenacious undead character from popular culture is “The Terminator” from the series of films made famous by Arnold Schwarzenegger.  In this case, the cyborg does have superhuman powers.  But the most terrifying aspect of being pursued by the Terminator is neither his weaponry nor his strength.  It is his persistence.

When Kyle Reese, the hero of the first film, comes back from the future to rescue Sarah Connor, he warns the police psychologist,

“You still don’t get it, do you? He’ll find her! That’s what he does! That’s ALL he does! You can’t stop him! He’ll wade through you, reach down her throat and pull her fuckin’ heart out!” 

Later in the film he tells Sarah Connor,

“That terminator is out there. It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.” (IMDB)

It’s not his superhuman strength nor his technologically enhanced tracking skills we fear, it’s his relentlessness.

Research by Angela Duckworth suggests that perseverance can be a powerful resource, not only for zombies and cyborgs, but also for regular living people like you and me.  Duckworth began to study “grit” when she realized that a common characteristic among hugely successful people from a variety of fields was a “tenacious dogged determination” that kept them working towards their long term goals.

Her research with West Point military academy cadets, for example, found that “grit” was actually a better determinant of who would make it through the tough training than the other measurements that the military had previously used.  

Her research on National Spelling Bee participants found that the grittier contestants were also more successful (by virtue of more hours of practice.) Like the zombies, more perseverant people simply outlast their more talented but less gritty colleagues.  They will work harder and longer until their goals have been reached. 

So the next time you curl up on the sofa to watch undead creatures from hell relentlessly pursue their prey, you can be terrified by their evil intentions, you can be repulsed by their rotting flesh, and you can cheer for the heroes as they try to escape. But you should also admire their tenacity.  Do you have long term goals that you hope and dream of accomplishing?  If you do, you just might benefit from having a zombie as a role model.

References and recommended reading:

Austen, J. & Grahame-Smith, Seth (2009). Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: The Classic Regency Romance – Now with Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem! Quirk Books.

The idea for this post was inspired by Joel Richards on the Friends of Positive Psychology list serv.  Thanks Joel!

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12 Responses to The Positive Psychology of Zombies: The Power of Perseverance

  1. Dan Bowling June 29, 2011 at 11:05 am #

    Nice. By the way, the NYT did a nice article on the how zombies have become a cultural icon that you or others interested in this topic might want to check out (2010). Also, I will be getting research back any day now from a study on first year law student outcomes (grades, placement, etc.) to look for correlations with VIA traits measured last fall. I will be very surprised if persistence isn’t a very high predictor of good things among this group. If so, should we change the name of the Law Review to the Zombie Times?

  2. Marie-Josee Shaar June 29, 2011 at 1:44 pm #

    Very funny! Perseverance is one of my top strengths, but somehow I tend to associate with the little train that could more than I do with zombies. Maybe I should reconsider?
    LOL, MJ

  3. Jeremy McCarthy (@jeremcc) June 29, 2011 at 5:28 pm #

    Hi Dan, I remember reading that article, which is when I first heard of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and realized that zombies were “all the rage.” I think you will agree with me that Marie-Josee is much better represented by the cute “little engine that could” than by a flesh eating demon. 🙂

  4. wayne June 29, 2011 at 5:43 pm #

    Jeremy – I love the way things get re branded in positive psychology – grit in its previous incarnation was called conscientiousness – one of the big 5 personality domains. And guess what – conscientiousness is the biggest predictor of success.

  5. Jeremy McCarthy (@jeremcc) June 29, 2011 at 10:25 pm #

    Hi Wayne, Interesting. I’m sure there is overlap here but I wouldn’t say conscientiousness and grit are the same thing. Zombies, for example, would not likely score very high on conscientiousness like they would on grit!

  6. Dan Bowling June 29, 2011 at 11:18 pm #

    I don’t know, I just winged a few zombies in my back yard, and several cleaned up after themselves (conscientiousness?), then kept on coming (grit?).

  7. wayne July 1, 2011 at 4:28 pm #

    Jeremy – I think zombies are a great analogy for PP. The relentless much froward without much thought.

  8. Marie-Josee Shaar July 2, 2011 at 10:25 am #

    Wayne – I’ve learnt to know you and really appreciate your kindness, conscientiousness and cleverness over a few conversations we’ve had over the phone/web recently. But I have to admit that your latest post above isn’t the best example of it…

  9. Dan Bowling July 3, 2011 at 4:40 pm #

    Are there problems with some of positive psychology and its adherents? Of course, it is full of imperfections, but is it grounds to dismiss an entire field? Derek Bok, former President of Harvard University, in discussing what he calls “happiness research” in his recent book, The Politics of Happiness, thinks not: “where skeptics err is when they use these imperfections to reject the (findings of positive psychology) entirely even though the results are reasonably accurate and better than any available alternative. Having dismissed the findings, the critics can then feel free to substitute whatever alternative conclusion happens to suit their favorite theory or political preference.”

  10. Roman July 13, 2011 at 11:26 am #

    Very insighful article Jeremy. From now on, as you mentioned, everytime I see any horror movies or zombies movies, I’ll ook beyond the surface and see nothing but perseverance…:o)
    Now i must go, becuase I have …psycology of zombies part II to read :o)

  11. Lisa January 27, 2012 at 9:52 am #

    Excellent post. I am a zombie movie fan from way back, and I love the tie to perseverance.


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