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Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Zombie Ideas Causing Trouble Again

Recently I came across the term “zombie ideas”. I really don’t remember where it was, so I can’t give due credit to the inventor, but I have to borrow this. A “zombie idea” is one that ought to have been dead a long time ago, but it won’t lie down and give up. Regrettably, there are a lot of people who welcome zombie ideas and keep them in circulation--  perhaps just because they heard of these ideas a long time ago and their vague familiarity gives them some of the credibility of tradition. Anyway, zombie ideas are definitely in our midst, and if you look through some past posts on this blog you will see that I have been aiming silver bullets at them (all right, I guess that’s for werewolves, so maybe that explains why there are still so many of the zombie kind.)  By the way, zombie ideas eat your brain and keep you from thinking straight, so they are not to be welcomed, even if like real (traditional) zombies they seem to save you from some heavy lifting.

The New York  Times Sunday business section has just given half a page to a zombie idea (Martin, C. [2016, Nov. 27]. A smashing new way to relieve stress. NY Times, Business, p. 4). This story recounts how one Donna Alexander has set up a for-profit Anger Room in Dallas, and how similar rooms now exist in Houston, Toronto, Niagara Falls, and Australia. According to the article, “the Anger Room charges $25 for five minutes [yes, you read it correctly, minutes] of crushing printers, alarm clocks, glass cups, vases, and the like.”  Persons desiring to smash things can get special set-ups for $500 dollars or so—one of those having been “a faux retail store, replete with racks of clothing.” ”.  Recently, mannequins dressed as Trump or Clinton have been available for smashing. The idea is that this is a space where “stressed-out people could relieve their tension in a safe, non-violent way”.  

The zombie idea at work here is the belief that by acting angry, people can get rid of persistent uncomfortable anger and frustration that they experience. This belief, often referred to as catharsis, dates back to the ancient Greek drama, whose audiences were thought to benefit from the vicarious experience of sadness and grief. Sigmund Freud expanded this idea to suggest that all kinds of lingering negative emotions could be re-experienced in some way and deactivated as a result. Freud’s view involved a hydraulic metaphor for emotion, as if it were water collecting and pressing hard against a dam, which could be drained in order to release the pressure.

Two points about this zombie idea: First, doesn’t it seem odd that no one ever worries that acting happy will remove happiness from your life? Presumably, if catharsis worked for one kind of emotion, it ought to work for all of them, no? Second (and more important), research like that published by Jill Littrell almost 20 years ago has clearly indicated that behaving in an angry way actually makes people feel more angry, not less.

 Although it’s clearly time for this idea to lie down and let itself be buried, Alexander and other people in the rage business find the zombie idea too profitable to let go. Is what they are doing fraudulent? Probably so, but to win a lawsuit against them, a client would have to show that the owners knew you can’t destroy anger this way, and also would have to demonstrate that he or she had actually been harmed. These things are not very likely to happen.

Although the writer Claire Martin was obviously mainly interested in the Anger Room as a business venture, she should be given credit for consulting a clinical psychologist about the emotional benefits of smashing things. The person she talked to, UCLA psychologist George Slavin, warned that physiological responses during angry behavior can actually be bad for health, and recommended that people who feel tense and angry should use cognitive therapy and stress-reduction techniques to help them feel better in the face of the stresses of daily life. He described the idea that acting angry can relieve stress as “appealing” but not supported by evidence. But although Martin included these remarks, she spent all the rest if the article talking about related business ventures.

Zombie ideas of all kinds are “appealing” in the sense that they are simple and familiar and don’t require us to do much mental heavy lifting. Some of them, like the Anger Room idea, are presented to us over and over because they can be so profitable for a few individuals—so they become even more familiar than they were at the beginning. Claire Martin’s article in the Times did this job too, even though she paid lip service to “giving the other side” in a couple of paragraphs. Her focus was on the bottom line for the entrepreneurs. If you and I want to emphasize the bottom line of our own well-being, we need to watch out for the zombies.


  1. I like this term "zombie ideas." A few zombie ideas that I come across:
    -birth order psychology
    -learning styles (tactile, visual, etc)
    -right-brain, left-brain personalities

    1. Yep, those are good ones-- dead but they don't lie down!