Police Psychology | Managing Your Inner Zombie
by Doug Gentz, Ph.D.
All of us have a complex, pervasive, extensive network of habits that we might as well think of as our “Inner Zombie.” It’s responsible for most of our behavior. That turns out to be a good thing because most things we do are best done “mindlessly” and automatically. Imagine how little we could get done if we had to deliberately ﬁgure out or remember how to walk, talk, or drive our cars. In general, learning is just acquiring new and useful habits. We like to get them out of the initially awkward and conscious stage and turn them over to our “inner zombie” for execution as soon as possible. When your Inner Zombie took over the job of lining up your thumbs below the slide of your Glock, your range scores probably improved.
At a neurological level habits are just synaptic connections between nerves. The more a habitual behavior is performed, the stronger the synaptic connection (and the more likely it is to be performed again). This is the physiological fact that leads to the ﬁrst axiom of learning theory: All habits are permanent.
Most of the time our Inner Zombies are taking pretty good care of us and making moment to moment life a lot easier – implementing good/useful habits like approaching a door from the side or switching radio frequencies without thinking about which way to twist the knob. Other times our Inner Zombies are walking us into some pretty dysfunctional territory – like eating unhealthy food in front of the TV, getting stuck online too long, or letting our smart phones distract us from more appropriate targets for our attention. Poorly managed Inner Zombies are responsible for all of our bad habits, the worst of which we call addictions.
Fortunately, our Inner Zombies aren’t intentionally malicious or diabolically intelligent. Although it’s often inconvenient and usually requires some conscious effort, it’s possible to retrain them. Since all habits are permanent, the goal is to design a new habitual behavior that will, through repetition and practice, become more powerful, useful, and functional than the “bad habit.” The new habit will be a more “successful” behavior and after it’s in place, will tend to be reinforced and strengthened by that success.
Retraining your zombie, like retraining your dog, happens in ﬁve steps: 1) identify the behavior you want to change, 2) identify the environmental stimuli that cues the behavior (attracts the zombie), 3) speciﬁcally and concretely design the new behavior, 4) consciously, deliberately insert the new behavior following the environmental cue, 5) repeat as many times as necessary until your zombie does the new behavior in response to the cue without your help.
Sometimes even well-trained zombies revert to previous “bad behaviors.” This should be expected to happen occasionally and is not cause for passionate self-recrimination. Just remember your Inner Zombie doesn’t have any bad intentions – just give it a little remedial training in working for you instead of against you.
Site Editor: Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D. ABPP
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