The Self-Preservation Instinct And The Zombie Apocalpyse

1 Apr

I recently started a series of posts under the theme of ‘What would you do if …’. These present dilemmas you might face when a zombie apocalypse strikes and asks you to consider how you’d deal with them. From the comments on the first one it became clear that people would almost certainly prioritize their own survival over that of others (possibly at all costs and to a greater extent the longer they managed to survive). This got me thinking, how will the natural human self-preservation instinct affect the way people interact with each other in the face of a zombie apocalypse?

This is important because it will affect any decisions you make about whether to join up with others or go it alone. There are lots of advantages to being part of a group but the main ones are increased vigilance (the more people there are, the more eyes there’ll be to spot trouble – and there will be people to keep a look out as you do things like rest, sleep and eat), communal defence (the greater the number of people, the better chance you have of repelling any attacks from zombie or other groups of survivors who are after your stuff) and division of labour (it allows some people to concentrate on things like getting supplies while others defend or guard your camp or safe house).

Yet, any group will be made up of individuals and because of the natural human self-preservation instinct, come the zombie apocalypse, these individuals will most likely behave like pet cats. That is, as long as their survival needs align with yours, they’ll be your friend but the moment a rift develops between what’s in their best interest and what’s in yours, you’ll be on your own, or worse they’ll turn on you or abandon you to the zombie hordes just so they can get away. This means that in any group you become part of, you need to try to ensure that there is as little difference as possible between what’s good for you and what’s good for all others within it.

How do you do this? Well, you can think of this as a trade-off. The more similar and compatible the personalities of all the individuals, the smaller the group, the better they know each other and the more closely related they are, the more everyone’s survival needs will align. The greater the disparity in personality types, the larger the group and the less well known or related to each other the individuals in it are, the higher the likelihood that there will be serious mis-matches in the survival needs of different individuals within the group and this will mean they are less dependable and, indeed, the actions of individuals within it may become highly unpredictable.

For any given set of circumstances, there’s going to be an optimal group size and composition as far as your survival needs are concerned. Sometimes you’ll find your optimal group size is quite large and include a wide range of people. These will be times when everyone has the same best interests in terms of their survival, such as when you’re defending a large compound from outside aggressors who are likely to kill you all if they get in. At others, it might be as low and as narrow as just you on your own because what’s best for you conflicts with what might be best for others, such as sneaking silently away from an approaching zombie horde while the rest of the camp sleeps because you know that rousing them would only alert the approaching undead to your presence and then you too would risk being killed.

The extent to which people let this self-preservation instinct rule how they respond to others is likely to change over time. When the apocalypse starts, people are probably going to try to help each other as much as they can but as time goes on, they’re likely to become more and more self-centred as they become hardened to their new world. That or you’ll find that those who survive the longest are the ones most willing to put their own needs above those of others. Either way, the longer the zombie apocalypse goes on, the more people are going to put their own interests first and the less likely they’ll be to help others, and especially strangers.

So what does all this means? Firstly, when the dead start to walk again, don’t assume you’ll always be better off in a group. If your thinking about joining one make sure that it’s needs align well with yours. Personally, I’d avoid large groups and groups where a lot of people don’t know each other well as this increases the chances that there will be a conflict between different members of the group and that’s never a good thing for your long-term survival. If you do join a group, remember that things can change and if they do, you may need to leave right away, so always have a plan and equipment packed ready and waiting just in case. Finally, remember that no matter what, when trying to survive in a world filled with zombies, you will never be able to truly rely on those around you to help you when things go bad, and the benefits of being in a group can evaporate in an instant, especially when you come under attack from the undead. After all, when the apocalypse comes, everyone who survives will eventually reach the point where they’d abandon their own granny to the zombies because they realise they can only run fast enough to escape if they leave her behind.


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From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in print and as an ebook. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more. To download a preview of the first three chapters, click here.

To read the Foreword Clarion Review of For Those In Peril On The Sea (where it scored five stars out of five) click here.

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2 Responses to “The Self-Preservation Instinct And The Zombie Apocalpyse”

  1. Jack Flacco 01/04/2013 at 18:47 #

    My idea of self-preservation is just that: self-preservation. I wouldn’t rely on anyone. Trust will be such an easy commodity during those days that people will need others to survive. However, those prepared, not so much resource-wise but mentally–those are the ones who will survive. At least that’s what I think, but what do I know!

    • cmdrysdale 01/04/2013 at 19:04 #

      I do wonder how people will react in a world where you cannot rely on any other individual when you really need to. It goes against all our natural instincts of how human interactions work. Research has shown that our default setting is to trust others until they screw us over (the whole fool me once, shame on me, fool me twice shame on you thing). Yet in the zombie apocalypse, if people treat others like this, they’ll probably end up dead – or undead!

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