The undead aren't known for a fascination with science, but now zombies have helped researchers understand a matter of life and death: the choices people make as they evacuate a building. A team at a science museum's zombie theme day recruited visitors to play a "zombie video game" that was actually a test of their ability to escape a structure during an emergency. Each player was instructed to maneuver his or her own personal zombie through one of two corridors leading to a large room, then back out again. Players had a bird's-eye-view of the layout, to which the experimenters added a milling crowd of other zombies. The researchers found that when players were under no pressure, they quickly found their way out of the simulated building by taking the less congested of the two exit routes. But when the volunteers were stressed out—by being asked to beat the escape times of previous zombies—they were more likely to stick to the route they'd taken into the building, even when it was crowded with others, than to head for a clear escape route they hadn't used before. The results suggest that humans under stress don't reliably make rational evacuation decisions, the researchers report in Animal Behaviour. That finding, though not surprising, should prompt rethinking of how to conduct evacuations, the researchers say. For example, people heading into large buildings should be directed to at least two entry routes, so that in an emergency, they don't head, zombie-like, to a single path of escape.
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