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What Can Zombies Teach Us About Crowd Behavior?

Strange things were afoot in "the zombie lab" at London’s Science Museum. Among them: a game wherein the undead shed some light on crowd behavior during stressful times.

What can zombies reveal about crowd behavior during evacuations and other stressful periods? A lot, according to a recent paper published in the journal Animal Behavior. Dr. Nikolai Bode, a research fellow in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at the University of Essex, codesigned a video game to test individuals’ evacuation strategies in high-stress situations--for example, during a zombie attack (or, you know, an evacuation or other more likely case). In the game, zombies revealed exit and entrance routes to players by entering and leaving the game, but they also created blockages and queues in doorways.

Under normal circumstances, when familiar exit routes were blocked, players would not take those routes. But when players were put in a stressful situation--meaning researchers instructed them to flee under time pressure--they returned to the familiar routes, even when these were blocked by Zombie hordes.

Bode says the game also provided insight into the "herding effect," the idea that people in stressful situations are more likely to follow the crowd. In fact, researchers found no evidence of this. People went their own way, even when such a move was detrimental.

"Rather than focus the mind, stressful situations were more likely to lead people to make worse decisions compared to people who were not stressed," says Bode. He adds that stressed-out players were less likely to reconsider a bad evacuation decision; they couldn’t course-correct.

The lessons from this experiment could help architects and city planners design with emergency situations in mind. Or maybe, in the event of World War Z, we all need to take five deep breaths and meditate. On second thought, we should probably just run like hell.

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