How to Shape a Zombie


Yes, yes, I know that one is supposed to say “How to shape zombie behavior,” but, hey, it’s Halloween and weird things happening are OK.  And what could be weirder than thinking about how to shape the behavior (see, got it right) of a zombie.

Where to start?

First, you need a zombie. You have two choices: catch one coming to your house disguised as a trick-or-treater (they often do that at this time of year, but don’t be fooled and mistakenly grab a human disguised as a zombie in a botched discrimination reversal failure), or go to where there is reputedly the largest zombie population on earth: Haiti. Either way, you’ll need to refer to the latest version of “Guidelines for the Housing and Care of Zombies” (Ghoul, 1833), which will tell you how to keep your zombie healthy (does it really matter?) and happy (well…). Where you keep your zombie is your business, but I wouldn’t keep it upstairs, especially at night. (The “Guidelines” recommend a coffin buried outside.)  

Next, you’ll need a place to work with your zombie. I recommend some place from which you can escape quickly if things get dicey (as they often do with zombies). I also recommend taking a few lessons in rapid hand and arm movement. Otherwise, you may not only lose a finger, you may find yourself on the wrong side of somebody (did I say that?) else’s zombie-shaping experiment.  

You’ll also have to find a reinforcer. Zombies, as is well known, strongly prefer human brains. Don’t even think about using human brains as the reinforcer. And the truth of the matter is that zombies really are pretty stupid (pardon the labeling and the mentalism) and can be easily fooled. I recommend substituting road kill, but wear rubber gloves and a mask, for obvious reasons.

Skinner (1953) observed that in shaping, through a series of successive approximations one brings a response existing in some form in the organism’s repertoire to the terminal (probably a bad word to use around a zombie) form.  So, we’ll need to select a response for shaping. Applying to the Living Dead the same principle that applies to living humans in applied settings, it is desirable to study a response with some social relevance (Baer, Wolf, & Risley, 1968).  Zombies don’t do much, and what they do, they do slowly. One thing they do, especially at night, is wander around aimlessly and eat people’s brains. It would be of benefit to society if zombies don’t eat the brains of people (well, at least most people), thereby not only disrupting families and society, but also creating more zombies. One potential way of at least slowing the pace of zombie growth, then, might be to stop zombies from wandering around aimlessly (or not so aimlessly, too). To do so we could shape staying in one place – sitting. (Indeed, this could be the beginning of a whole campaign to control zombies, maybe with the slogan “keep ‘em in their seats and off our streets”.)    

With reinforcer in hand and target response selected, let the fun begin, at least for you (but not, of course, for the zombie - need I remind you that they have no life). Navigate your zombie (carefully, watch those fingers) to the work space. It’s highly unlikely it will sit at first, which is good news because this is what you want to teach the zombie to do.  Just don’t let it mindlessly (again, excuse the mentalism, but with zombies it probably is true) wander off so far that you lose all control.

Realize that it does no good to instruct your zombie to sit - their behavior is notoriously unresponsive to human verbal commands (besides, most probably don’t speak English anyway), so just start shaping.  Follow the well-established principle of delivering reinforcers over time for responses that are closer and closer approximations to the target response while withholding reinforcers when the response drifts from the one targeted. (Just like the children’s game of “you’re getting warmer/colder” except substitute zombie for child and road kill or its withholding for “warmer/colder.”) Remember to deliver the reinforcers with some care. No fingers in zombie mouths!

And on the subject of reinforcer delivery, normally one is very concerned about immediately reinforcing successive approximations to the target response. Temporal frameworks are different with zombies. They don’t die (nor are they really alive), so their internal clocks (which, by the way, they have to re-stuff in their heads from time to time as their faces wear off) are set differently (read: all messed up) than the really living. The point is that immediacy of reinforcement for a zombie may be 20 hours after a response.

It is just because of this latter point that shaping may take a long time. Several years in fact. So sit back, relax, and enjoy the behavioral process, knowing that in the end you will have a zombie who will sit in a chair. Lucky you!


And Happy Halloween from the Aubrey Daniels Institute!  



Baer, D.M., Wolf, M. M., & Risley, T. R. Some current dimensions of applied behavior analysis. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 1, 91-97.

Ghoul, I. M. A. (1833). Guidelines for the housing and care of zombies. Port au Prince: Full Press.

Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and human behavior. New York: Freeman.

(With special thanks to Alex Ward for verifying my basic zombie facts.) 

Posted by Andy Lattal, Ph.D.

Dr. Andy Lattal is the Centennial Professor of Psychology at West Virginia University (WVU). Lattal has authored over 150 research articles and chapters on conceptual, experimental, and applied topics in behavior analysis and edited seven books and journal special issues, including APA’s memorial tribute to B. F. Skinner.