The Jeff Wise Blog

Caught in a Stampede, What Would You Do?

Once again, a stampede has turned a large celebration into a tragedy. Just four months after 21 people died at the Love Parade in Duisburg, Germany, more than 350 were killed and a similar number injured yesterday at a festival in Cambodia. The terrible irony of stampedes is that for decades engineers and sociologists have been studying how to design spaces so that crowds don’t turn deadly, yet the number of incidents only continues to grow. As I pointed out recently, there were only 24 such tragedies around the world in the 1980s; in the last decade, there have been well over 100.

Part of the problem is likely that growing affluence around the world, together with improved communication and transportation, means that it’s easier for large crowds to assemble. But another factor may be that the general public has erroneous ideas about what a stampede actually looks like, how it can turn deadly, and what one can do should one occur. Maybe if more people were aware of what a potentially dangerous situation looked like, they could take steps to defuse it. So: what does a real-life stampede look like? Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Panic

Security Guru Bruce Schneier: “I Predicted TSA Brouhaha”

I’ve got a post up today on the Popular Mechanics website with an interview I conducted yesterday with cryptology expert and security consultant Bruce Schneier, who since 9/11 has been one of the most pointed critics of the government’s anti-terrorism security programs. In his 2003 book Beyond Fear he coined the phrase “security theater” to refer to measures which are undertaken not because they will be effective at thwarting attacks, but because the agencies carrying them out need to appear to be doing something useful. I asked Schneier about the recent controversy involving the Transport Security Agency’s use of invasive scanners and full-body pat-downs. You can read the full interview here. Here’s the transcript: Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Policy

7 Essential Steps to Mastering Temptation

We Americans are out of control. We want to lose weight, but we can’t stop eating. (Since 1980 the obesity rate in the United States has doubled; two-thirds of the population is now overweight.) We want to save, but we can’t stop spending. (The average American household owes more in debt than it earns in a year, and still keeps spending more than it takes in.) We want to be healthy, but we can’t stop smoking, drinking, and doing drugs. (One in ten Americans has an addiction disorder.) We can’t even control our attention. (We’re multitasking like never before, constantly switching our focus from Blackberries to iPhones, to email and texts and the internet.)

These behavioral problems aren’t just vexing and embarrassing. They’re killing us.  Smoking and obesity are the top two causes of preventable death in the United States. More than half of people who die between the ages of 15 to 64 do as a result of unhealthy decisions, compared to just 5 percent a century ago. And impulse control takes a toll across all age groups. Children born today might be the first in American history to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents. They will also face greatly diminished economic prospects, as runaway spending in both private and public spheres contributes to an unprecedented and increasingly unsustainable debt load.

Self-control is one of the hardest things to achieve in modern life, but in the course of my research I’ve come across seven key tools that can help us to resist temptation. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Self Control

The 2 Key Parenting Skills You Didn’t Know About

We all know that the most important thing in raising a child is to offer it unstinting love. But what are the next two most important things? Surprisingly, neither have to do with how you specifically relate to your child, as I learned from a fascinating article in the current issue of Scientific American Mind by child psychologist (and fellow PT blogger) Robert Epstein.

Epstein points out that parents are deluged with advice — there are more than 40,000 books on the topic listed on Amazon. So he and his colleagues set out to see if they could determine which techniques were the most important in raising healthy, happy, successful children. Epstein analyzed responses to an online parenting-skills questionnaire that had been completed by some 2000 people. The survey asked respondents to rate themselves in 10 different categories of parenting skill, which Epstein calls “The Parents’ Ten,” since prior studies have shown them to be crucial tools. The test-takers were also asked how well their children had turned out.

As expected, Epstein found that the most important parenting skill is simply love them. “Our… findings confirmed what most parents already believe,” Epstein writes, “that the best thing we can do for our children is to give them lots of love and affection.” But the second and third most important factors related not to how the parents treat the child, but one another and themselves. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Children

Yes, You Really Can Lift a Car Off a Trapped Child

This month’s issue of Psychology Today includes my article “Stealth Superpowers,” about how the brain’s automatic fear-response systems can unleash hidden mental and physical abilities. A portion of the article is now online on the magazine’s website. The excerpt tells the story of Tom Boyle, Jr, a man who quite suddenly and unexpectedly found himself in the middle of a life-or-death drama:

“Oh God, do you see that?” his wife said.

Boyle saw it: the crumpled frame of a bike under the car’s bumper, and tangled within it a boy, trapped. That’s when Boyle got out and started running. For an agonizing eternity the Camaro screeched on, dragging the mass under it. As it slowed to a stop he could hear the bicyclist pounding on the car with his free hand, screaming. Without hesitating Boyle bent down, grabbed the bottom of the chassis, and lifted with everything he had. Slowly, the car’s frame rose a few inches. The bicyclist screamed for him to keep lifting. Boyle strained. “It’s off me!” the boy yelled. Someone pulled him free, and Boyle let the car back down.

As I write in the story, Boyle accomplished an almost unthinkable feat of strength. The world record for dead-lifting a barbell is 1,003 pounds. A stock Camaro weighs 3000 pounds. So how did Boyle pull it off? Here’s how I explain it in the story: Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Mastering Fear

Getting Lost, and Loving It

The most exciting thing about travel for me is the delicious sense of disorientation, that Alice-in-Wonderland sense that even the smallest, most mundane details of life have been switched around. For me, getting lost in a strange place isn’t necessarily a bad thing at all. I like the sense of being totally cut off from the predictable world of my everyday life, immersed in the strangeness of the new. In the current issue of Travel + Leisure magazine, I have a short article talking about how traveling without navigational aids can boost your awareness of the world around you.

As it happens, a friend of mine, the travel writer Matt Gross, has been thinking along the same lines. Matt spent years traveling around the world writing the Frugal Traveler column for the New York Times. Now he’s started a new column called “Getting Lost,” in which he describes his attempts to deliberately disorient himself in places around the world that he has never visited before. Given our mutual interest in the topic, we decided to interview each other. My answers to Matt’s questions can be found over at his website, The Minor Glories.

Most of us try hard not to get lost. Where did you get the idea to deliberately throw yourself into the experience? Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Recreation

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