The Jeff Wise Blog

“Boy, Was I Wrong About Him”: Why It’s So Hard to Size People Up

Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller Blink was premised on the idea that our subconscious minds are more gifted than we imagine, and can form uncannily accurate judgments very quickly in very little time. Now, in the past, I’ve criticized certain aspects of this book, and so have other people. But lately I’ve been thinking about the part in which he extols our intuitive ability to quickly understand, with just a few seconds’ exposure, the essence of a person’s personality. He quotes producer Brian Grazer describing how he intuited right away the actor’s exceptionable likeability, and goes on:

My guess is that many of you have the same impression of Tom Hanks. If I asked you what he was like, you would say that he is decent and trustworthy and down-to-earth and funny. But you don’t know him. You’re not friends with him. You’ve only seen him in the movies, playing a wide range of different characters. Nonetheless, you’ve manged to extract something very meaningful about him from those thin slices of experience, and that impression has a powerful effect on how you experience Tom Hanks movies.

This has always struck me as a rather implausible argument. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Psychology

Blimps for the Everyman

A heap of rip-stop nylon, damp with dew, stretches 140 feet across a farmer’s hay field in Amherst, Massachusetts. The pre-dawn air is humid, still, and cool — “perfect weather for this kind of thing,” says one of the volunteers bustling around the lumpy shape. A large fan roars to life, drowning out the twittering of the birds and frogs, and the nylon gradually leavens toward the sky, growing into a blob 70 feet high. Inside its bobbing skin, experimental blimp-builder and pilot Mike Kuehlmuss stands in a makeshift cockpit of welded steel tubing. He hits a toggle, and with a roar a jet of burning gas shoots upward.

With aching slowness, the watermelon-shaped envelope lifts off the ground, its jaunty black and yellow stripes and red tail fins bringing to mind something of a carnival jester. Crew members hold the cockpit steady as Kuehlmuss straps himself into a bucket seat salvaged from an old Toyota Corolla. He checks the instruments fastened to the frame in front of him: envelope temperature, fuel levels, compass heading, engine rpm. With a remote switch he triggers another blast of hot gas, then checks the view of from the camera fastened near the near-mounted propellor. All systems are go. The burners roar, and the cockpit levitates off the ground. The 24-hp engine sputters into action, and with all the stateliness and grace of a passing cloud, the huge ship slowly rises and slides away into the sky. The Skyacht – the first of what its builders hope could be an entire industry of personal recreational blimps – is again on the prowl. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Aviation

My Strange Journey With Antivirus Guru John McAfee

As I stepped from the rickety wooden dock onto John McAfee’s motorboat, I felt like I was in a scene straight out of Heart of Darkness. Here I was, a visitor in a strange land, embarking on a journey up a tropical river in search of the truth about a larger-than-life figure living in self-imposed exile.

“Are we going to find Kurtz?” I joked.

McAfee laughed and gunned the engine. The mood turned more Apocalypse Now, as he cranked the boat up Belize’s twisting New River, our wake surging through the mangrove roots on the bank. Every quarter mile or so the unmarked channel forked, and McAfee assured me that if we took the wrong one we would wind up in Guatemala, hopelessly lost, or else stuck for good, with no way out except to wade mile after mile through nearly impenetrable, crocodile-infested swamp.

Only later would I realize just how truly Kurtz-like the mission had already become. On that day, what had started out as a sympathetic profile for Fast Company would slowly evolve into something more like a take-down, as I realized that McAfee’s position in Belize was much more compromised than I had imagined. Finally I understood why he had kept asking–playfully, I had thought–whether my story was going to be an expose. As the facts emerged, it became clear that I would have to write just that.

What I still don’t understand is whether an expose was what he wanted all along. Did he, like Kurtz, crave the blade? He had, after all, kept bringing up the idea of the expose. And he kept scattering clues of dark import in my path. But why? Was it that he craved the publicity? Was he diverting my attention away from something else? Or did he have some other plan altogether? Given that the subject is an avowed prankster like John McAfee, we may never know the whole truth.

Read the story here.

Follow me on Twitter: @extremefear.

Filed under: Business

Has BASE Jumping Gotten Boring For You?

I’m talking with Red Bulletin magazine about doing an interview next week with Travis Pastrana, the man who embodies the joyful abandonment of fear. It’s got me thinking about the mindset of people who reach the absolute outer limits of thrillseeking. And that line of thought leads inevitably to this:

How do you get the point where this is your form of recreation? I imagine you try skydiving, that gets boring, so you try BASE jumping, and that gets boring; you fly a wingsuit away from the mountain, that gets boring; so you try flying the wingsuit as close to the mountain as you can get. Where do you go from here? Well, one ideas is the project that daredevil wingsuiter Jeb Corliss is working on, trying to figure out how to land a wingsuit without using a parachute. He’s been at it for a few years yet and hasn’t cracked that nut yet, but that’s just as well, because I really can’t imagine what he’d do for an encore.

Filed under: sports, Thrills, video

How the Bravest Are Different

On Saturday, I wrote a post about how the Swedish explorer S.A. Andree carefully observed his own fear reaction as he made his first ascent in a balloon. Intellectually he felt no trepidation about what he was about to do, yet as the craft began to rise he found himself desperately holding on despite himself. I described feeling similarly overwhelmed by fear myself, on several occasions. But I had no word for the phenomenon.

Well, now I have one. It’s called “The Grip.” Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Mastering Fear

Figure Out a Problem, And Make it Impossible to Solve

Today is a beautiful day for a run in New York’s Central Park — sunny and cool, with the trees wearing the first pale-green lushness of early spring. My wife and I were jogging around the park, pushing our 1.5-yr-old in a jogging stroller, and lamenting the difficulty we’ve been having getting our weight down, even though we’ve been exercising a good deal more now that the weather has gotten nice.

Sandra, it turned out, had just been reading an article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine about just this very topic. Gretchen Reynolds delves into the issue of exercise and weight loss, and the discouraging research that has found that, for women especially, exercising more makes you hungrier, so you eat more and wind up counteracting the calorie-burning you’ve been doing. Writes Reynolds:

In practical terms, the results are scientific proof that life is unfair. Female bodies, inspired almost certainly “by a biological need to maintain energy stores for reproduction,” Braun says, fight hard to hold on to every ounce of fat. Exercise for many women (and for some men) increases the desire to eat.

Upon hearing this information, I was of two minds. On the one hand, I was pleased to have an explanation for this annoying phenomenon. On the other hand, I thought: is the urge to find explanations for our behavior ultimately self-defeating? Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Self Control


I am in the middle of reading Alec Wilkinson’s fascinating New Yorker story about Swedish explorer S.A. Andree, who tried to be the first man to reach the North Pole by floating there in a helium balloon. Turned out to be a bad idea.

As part of his self-education into aeronautics, Andree took his first balloon ride at the age of 38. The year was 1892. In an age when traveling by air was still a novel and rather far-fetched idea, it must have been far more terrifying than we can imagine today. As he prepared to board the contraption, Andree must have wondered whether he would feel fear or not. Ever the man of science, he decided to pay careful attention to his body’s reaction.

Andree wrote that he was preoccupied with observing himself to determine whether he was afraid. He was surprised to find himself, as the balloon left the ground, holding tight to the ropes encircling the basket. “I discovered  that I was not conscious of any feeling of fear, but that I probably was influenced by it unconsciously,” he wrote. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Mastering Fear

“Go Toward the Light”: The Science of Near-Death Experiences

Modern medicine has proven so adept at saving victims of cardiac arrest that a good number of people are walking around today who at one time or another were considered clinically dead. While this is a good thing in and of itself, it has the side benefit of having generated numerous reports of the shadowy psychological condition that people experience when they’re close to “the other side.” So consistent are these reports — combining the sensation of floating, seeing oneself from an outside perspective, and moving through a tunnel towards light — that they have earned an official moniker, “Near Death Experiences,” or NDEs.

Just what is behind these eerily similar reports? To those of a certain mindset, they are a  supernatural phenomenon, an early glimpse of the afterlife that awaits. To those of a more materialist persuasion, these sensations must be generated by some common brain architecture that gets activated under intense stress. As it happens, this latter view has just received some intriguing scientific backing, in the form of a paper in the latest issue of the journal Critical Care. A key component of NDEs, it appears, is carbon dioxide in the blood. Yes, the same thing that makes Cokes fizzy also makes your life flash in front of your eyes. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Research

More Red Bull Mishigas

I was going to go gliding today but the weather radar made it seem like Wurtsboro would be too overcast for good thermaling — plus I had work to do. So instead I stayed home and watched this:

If you ever go gliding with me, please do not open the cockpit and go sit on the wing, no matter how tempting this prospect may be.

Parenthetically, how do you stand on top of a fuselage with a relative wind of at least 50 mph without getting blown off?

Filed under: Aviation

iPhone vs Earthquakes

Another day, another major earthquake — this time, a magnitude 6.9 tremblor that killed at least 300 people in China’s Qinghai province. I’ve been talking to a lot of seismologists lately, and they all agree that the recent cluster of devastating earthquakes, including the jolt that shook northern Mexico earlier this month, do not point to some planet-wide upheaval; it’s all a statistical coincidence, they say. Well, that may be true, but it sure doesn’t feel that way. It feels like something is up. Not surprising, then, that a few days ago false rumors started proliferating in Southern California that the Big One would strike imminently.

Seismologists’ reassurances would be more soothing if they had a detailed, empirically verified understanding of how earthquakes work. Unfortunately, they’re the result of forces at work deep within the earth that are difficult to gather data on. So the science remains in its early stages. But progress is being made — and soon, you can be a part of the process. As I wrote recently on the Pop Mech website:

As part of their battle to understand and protect against the destructive force of earthquakes, seismologists have gone to extraordinary lengths. They have bored holes deep into the earth’s crust, laid out arrays of sensors hundreds of miles across, and built supercomputers capable of running simulations at teraflop speeds. But the most exciting new effort in cutting-edge seismology involves a piece of instrumentation that’s a good deal less exotic. It’s called an iPhone. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: disaster

Interviews with the Author

Thinking About Fear & the Brain

If I find myself in a severe crisis, will I be able to keep it together? How can I control anxiety and panic? Is it possible to lead a life less bounded by fear? These are the sorts of questions that I'll be exploring in this blog, an offshoot of my book, Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger, published on December 8, 2009 by Palgrave Macmillan.

Video Introduction

Also by Jeff Wise