Zombies! and Psychology: Why are we afraid of zombies?

Hey y’all. Guess what.




I know, happy zombie. I’m excited too. To celebrate, I’m going to be posting a lot of zombie stuff here and over at Sweetly Snobbish (http://kelseyjaybird.wordpress.com/). About this time every month, I do a little feature called Psychology and Writing. This month, it’s all about zombies and the brainz. (Was that too awful? I apologise. I couldn’t help it, and I can’t guarentee I won’t make even worse brain jokes. Just warning you.) Today, I want to talk about why zombies are scary,  according to psychology. Cognitive psychology, to be exact. Cognitive psychology is the study of how the mind processes information, including perception.  There’s one theory (with it’s origins in robotics, oddly enough) that I think is a great explanation for why people are scared of zombies: The Uncanny Valley hypothesis. This theory was put forward by a roboticist named Masahiro Mori. Basically, it states that when something looks almost, but not quite, human, our brains freak out and we get repulsed and scared by them. This brain reaction has been demonstrated in research. This theory was developed to help roboticists design robots that didn’t terrify people. It just so happens that zombies fall right in the middle of this valley, as seen in this graph taken from a translation of Mori’s work by Macdorman, 2005: So, zombies fall into the Uncanny Valley. They’re almost human, but there’s something about them that’s just off. Possibly the rotting, or the lurching. So, they’re scary. But why does being in the Uncanny Valley make something scary? The most obvious is that zombies make people think about death. Now, the sources I looked at while writing this all talked about how robots bring this about, so I’m going to be using my own conclusions about zombies here. Zombies are clearly diseased. A reason that people fear them so much could be an underlying fear of disease and germs, and death by those germs.  Zombies are, obviously, undead. That raises some questions about the soul there, which is going to make religious people uncomfortable. If zombies still possess a soul is a discussion for another time.  Zombies are the walking embodiment of decay.  You can see all of the decay process that is usually kept underground, which might get people thinking about humans being the sum of their parts and what it means to be dead, in addition to being nasty as all heck. They’re twisted versions of people who used to be friends and family. They’re evil versions that replaced the old version….a doppelganger (this one applies to both robots and zombies, by the way). And people would naturally fear becoming that twisted thing, unable to rectify that this is what awaits them in death. Now, in robots, things like what I’ve mentioned here applies to partially disassembled humanoid robots. It would make logical sense, then, that the uncanny valley reaction would be doubled with walking, disassembled, humans. Now, that’s a lot of socio-cognitive psychology. Clear cut cognitive psychology deals more with how the zombies are perceived by our brainz. Here’s one that I play with in episode two of Zombvenger: the fact that, until close up, a zombie looks human. Now, the brain doesn’t really give two craps about if the zombie is an actual human or not until you’re running away from it. The brain forms an expectation of what a human should be like from it’s existing schemas about what a human should be like. A schema is basically just a collection of views on what things are and what they should do. So, you assume something is human, and then you see it move and it’s not moving like a human, but it still looks like one, and it sends conflicting visual cues and the mind has to adjust it’s schemas on the fly (which it doesn’t like to do) and the brain starts freaking out. Of course, then when the brain realises something is a predator, it starts telling you to run like hell.

Do not be fooled by their cuteness.

Is that all of the reasons that zombies are scary? Probably not. But it’s one interesting theory, and I thank you for joining me in looking at it. More to come soon! -Kelsey J. Sources: http://ucsdnews.ucsd.edu/archive/newsrel/soc/20110714BrainAndroids.asp http://www.androidscience.com/theuncannyvalley/proceedings2005/uncannyvalley.html For more information on the Uncanny Valley, check out http://sayginlab.ucsd.edu/


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