First, let's think about what problems the zombie apocalypse will bring. Yes, hoards of brain-eating, mindless undead will roam the earth. But the problem is bigger than that.
Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs establishes what people need in order to live and thrive. At the base level are biological functions – eating, drinking, breathing. The presence of zombies won't threaten that specifically, but it does threaten the next level of needs: security.
We will need shelter, security of our resources (like food and water), protection for our families, etc. Without that, we lose everything in life beyond basic survival. So how do we ensure our security?
If you are wealthy, you can buy this house, which transforms into an impenetrable zombie-proof fortress. If you aren't rich, you can prepare yourself physically. Maybe do some Crossfit (a recent article at Salon said that Crossfitters are "…fitness preppers ready to take on whatever catastrophe awaits mankind"). Perhaps get yourself a weapon, like this axe, which is in my personal apocalypse survival kit (it's good for close combat with the undead, or so I'm told). But all that preparation won't spare you from the real threat: people. Living people.
Think about all the zombie movies and TV shows you've watched, post-apocalyptic books you've read, and even about places – modern and historical - where society has collapsed. Most of the threats people face come from other people who are no longer bound by the laws and social rules we are used to.
So what's the most important thing you can do to survive? Pick the right friends. Yes, it's great to have group with a doctor and carpenter and cross-bow marksman. But what you really need are people you can trust. Your doctor isn't worth much if he sneaks away in the middle of the night with all the group's supplies. Your carpenter isn't contributing much if he assaults other members of the group.
Surround yourself with trustworthy people. How do we define trustworthy? At it heart, trust means that we take a risk based on our belief that the person we trust will act in our best interest. There are three major factors that are part of any trusting relationship:
1. Vulnerability – If someone is trustworthy, you can make yourself vulnerable around them and expect they will behave in a way that respects that vulnerability. Once the zombies are here, you will be vulnerable in a lot of ways. If you are going to share that vulnerability with others, be sure you know that they will act appropriately.
2. Favors – Sometimes called "reciprocal services" by sociologists, trust is built and maintained by doing things for one another. This can be caring for each other or doing favors. These are one-way acts that are selfless. When someone is selfless on our behalf, it shows us that we can believe that person will act in our interest later on. We strengthen that bond when we do for the other person in return. When the zombies are here and we are all short on resources and security, these favors will be critical for survival.
3. Emotional Intensity – Strong relationships are often shared between people who experience intense emotions together. That emotion could be love, but it could also be or fear – emotions that will be in ample supply during the zombie apocalypse. People who will share those intense feelings with us, rather than remaining cold, aloof, or even mocking of those feelings, are more likely to engage in trustworthy behavior.
With a trusted group, many of the greatest threats to security – those from other living people who have stopped acting within the constraints of societal rules – can be avoided. A team of trusted people will also be more effective at protecting property, shelter, and resources than any one person (or group of untrusting people) would be. In other words, much of Maslow's security layer will be restored, allowing us to live better, more fulfilling lives with our brains intact.
That's not to say you shouldn't prepare in other ways. Get in shape. Get some weapons. Make a kit so you can get out of town quickly if you need to. But, most importantly, think carefully about who you will bring with you. Be brutal in assessing who to trust and who doesn't deserve it; in a post-apocalyptic world, it's a decision that might save your life.
Dr. Jennifer Golbeck is an expert on the zombie apocalypse. The final chapter of her book Analyzing the Social Web is dedicated to using network analysis to survive the coming zombie hoards.