The Jeff Wise Blog

Behind the Love Parade Tragedy: The Psychology of Stampedes

Terrible news today from the German city of Duisburg, where a summer carnival called the “Love Parade” has been stricken by tragedy. According to breaking news reports, a crowd of revelers inside a tunnel became overcrowded and panicked, causing a stampede that has left at least 15 dead.

There are multiple layers of dark irony in this kind of needless death — for one thing, that a gathering called together in the name of peace could result in such a horrific toll; for another, that in the 21st century simple fear by itself is able to cause mass casualties. But that’s the paradox of terror: a response that evolved to keep us safe can itself pose a terrible danger, rising up at the most inappropriate times. If anything, the advent of modern technology seems to have left us even more vulnerable to fatal stampedes, as mass transportation and instant communication make it easier to bring large crowds together. But this kind of tragedy has a long history. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Panic

How a Peaceful Crowd Turns Into a Lethal Stampede

Few things are as bafflingly tragic as the mass death that can occur when a crowd of people becomes overcome by panic and stampedes within a confined space. As I’ve written earlier, in many cases of mass panic individual members of a crowd do not themselves act irrationally. However, in the case of a stampede the crowd truly seems to leave its senses, becoming a heaving mass in which rational behavior by an individual becomes impossible. The result can be truly horrific — in some cases, over 1,000 people have died in the ensuing crush.

Compounding the awfulness is the fact that in many cases the stampede is triggered by no actual danger. It seems that, in certain settings, a crowd that grows to a critical density reaches a critical state at which the slightest twitch is sufficient to send it into a stampede — like a supercooled drop of water that just needs the tiniest seed to instantly freeze.

The toll in human lives is immense: in the past decade there have been over 100 stampede events resulting in mass fatalities.  Yet there has been surprisingly little study has been done into the phenomenon. I was delighted, then, to learn via @bengoldacre of an absolutely fascinating new paper from Ed Hsu and colleagues at Johns Hopkins:  “Epidemiological Characteristics of Human Stampedes.” I emailed Dr. Hsu and he sent me copies of the paper, along with another, “Human Stampedes: A Systematic Review Historical and Peer-Reviewed Sources,” that further elaborated his team’s findings.

The papers are chockablock with intriguing findings, but here are some of the highlights: Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Panic

Are People Irrational in a Disaster?

News today of the terrible nightclub fire in Perm, Russia, in which at least 109 people died in a blaze caused by stage pyrotechnics setting fire to inflammable decorations. From the AP report:

Video recorded by a clubgoer and shown on Russian television showed partygoers dancing, before sparks from pyrotechnic fountains on stage ignited the club’s ceiling around midnight. Witness Svetlana Kuvshinova told The Associated Press that the blaze swiftly consumed twigs decorating the ceiling. Russian clubs and restaurants often cover ceilings with plastic insulation and a layer of willow twigs to create a rustic look…

The video showed people reluctantly heading toward the exit, some of them turning back to look at the burning ceiling. Within seconds they started rushing away in panic as flames begin to spread faster.

“There was only one exit, and people starting breaking down the doors to get out,” said a woman who identified herself only as Olga, smeared with soot and wearing a filthy fur coat. “They were breaking the door and panic set in. Everything was in smoke. I couldn’t see anything.”

The catastrophe is eerily similar (as the AP story notes) to the Station nightclub fire that took place in Rhode Island in 2001, and which I describe in Chapter 11 of my book. In both cases, revelers milled about as the flames spread, then moved en masse towards the front door, where their bodies jammed the exits so that no one could escape. Those who didn’t die of smoke inhalation were crushed to death by the pressure of those pushing from behind.

In both cases, many or all of the patrons of the club would have survived had they left the club in an orderly fashion. Instead, it seems, they panicked and died — a case of fear provoking irrational and ultimately self-destructive behavior. Or is it? Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Uncategorized

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