10823876-cartoon-zombie-with-brains-exposed-isolated-on-whitePretend you’re a zombie in a room full of zombies and all you want to do is get to the only available food source. There are two exits and you’ve got 5 seconds to beat the other zombies to the food source. How do you react?

A team of UK researchers used this scenario to monitor the exit route choices of test subjects when under pressure to make quick decisions. Visitors to the “ZombieLab” event at the Science Museum in London were invited to play a zombie video game while researchers secretly tested their ability to escape during an emergency.  The researchers, who presented their findings in the journal, Animal Behaviour, discovered that “under stress, subjects showed irrational and nonadaptive decision making.”

The video game’s home screen greeted players, “Hello, In this game you are a zombie in a building with a lot of other zombies. You can move your zombie by clicking with the mouse where you want it to go.” The goal was to move the zombie through a zombie crowd to available food targets as quickly as possible. Subjects were also told, “Don’t worry about the other zombies, you can bump into them.”

Over the course of three separate days researchers monitored test subjects while they navigated their individual zombie through a crowd of zombies. Subjects had a top-down view of the room layout and the option to steer their zombie to one of the two available exits. For the control, subjects moved their zombie from a starting point to a designated fixed target in another room. Next, subjects were given a 5 second countdown to get to the new fixed target. In the second task, subjects now had two possible exits to choose from — the one they entered from and a new exit — and the added stress of time limit.

In the control group, subjects split evenly between the two exits. However, once subjects were challenged with motivational messages to beat other player’s or their own time, their decision making skills were affected. Under stress, subjects were more likely to try to exit through the same route they had used to enter the room even though it was more crowded than the other exit. Researchers considered this behavior could also be due to ‘herding effect’ (a stronger tendency to follow others under stress), but was able to exclude it as a factor with further testing.

Credit: N. W. F. Bode and E. A. Codling, Animal Behaviour, (2013)

Credit: N. W. F. Bode and E. A. Codling, Animal Behaviour, (2013)

The study also found that “Age and gender had clear effects on reaction times in the virtual environment.” Of the 185 participants ages 18 to 51, there were 90 female subjects (48.6%) and 95 male subjects (51.4%). In all tasks, researchers found that on average, female and older participants “appeared to have longer reaction times.”

The researchers noted “the biggest limitation of our research is that it was conducted within a virtual environment. It is therefore not obvious whether our findings can be extrapolated directly to human behaviour in real environments.” Which can only mean the next step is to put a group of humans in a room and expose them to a group of actual zombies. Or, just watch a few episodes of the Walking Dead. Even in written out scripts the hordes all run in the same direction!

Virtual environment aside, the study does offer insight into how crowds might behave in a high-pressure situation. And, it is useful information for architects when considering a building’s layout and for safety personal responsible for emergency exit trainings.