Daily Archives: May 20, 2011

The psychology of zombies

My friends and family are endlessly amused by the fact that I’m a fan of zombie fiction, both on the movie (or television) screen and in print. Although I admit to enjoying the adrenaline rush that comes from being scared-but-ultimately-safe (just as, for example, roller coaster aficionados seek out ever-more intense thrill rides), my training as a psychologist and cognitive scientist also come into play. Zombies represent a kind of twilight state between life and death that gives us insights into our deepest fears and the coping mechanisms we develop to manage those fears.

(In my defense, even the Centers for Disease Control see zombies as a useful way to encourage emergency preparedness.)

Happily, I’m not the only university researcher with a professional interest in zombies. Harvard professor Steven C. Schlozman is a child and adolescent psychiatrist by training but he also has an interest in zombies. Not only has Dr. Schlozman published a well-received work of fiction about zombies, he has also developed what he terms a “theoretical neurobiology and psychology” of zombies.

See here for a short article describing Schlozman’s zombie neurobiology, and see here for a video (with downloadable podcast) of Schlozman discussing zombies at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, MA, as part of a lecture series co-sponsored by the Boston Museum of Science and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

For those who are less neuro-scientifically inclined, Schlozman discusses zombies as a manifestation of apocalyptic thinking in this article from Psychology Today.


Data mining will spur innovation, new report argues

The New York Times reports:

Data is a vital raw material of the information economy, much as coal and iron ore were in the Industrial Revolution. But the business world is just beginning to learn how to process it all…

Mining and analyzing these big new data sets can open the door to a new wave of innovation, accelerating productivity and economic growth. Some economists, academics and business executives see an opportunity to move beyond the payoff of the first stage of the Internet, which combined computing and low-cost communications to automate all kinds of commercial transactions.

The new report from the McKinsey Global Institute, which is cited in the NY Times article, is available online here (PDF).

The psychology of hypocrisy

NPR reports on a new book, Out of Character, by psychologists David DeSteno and Piercarlo Valdesolo, which examines research into human hypocrisy:

DeSteno cites one experiment in which subjects where told to flip a coin in order to choose between a simple, fun task and a boring, hour-long task. They were also told that the next participant would have to do the task that wasn’t chosen, and then they were left alone to their own devices.

“These were experiments centered on hypocrisy,” DeSteno says. “If you do this, what people will typically do when we leave them alone is 90 percent of them will not flip the coin.”

That is, they’d cheat the system and pick the preferred task for themselves. Later, when asked if they had acted fairly, the subjects responded that they had.

Then, those same subjects were asked to watch another participant — really, a fake participant planted by the researchers — do the same thing. They observed that person skip the coin toss and choose the easy task, just as they had done. Only this time, they were quick to condemn the planted participant.