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

Readers Set Me Straight: The Love Parade Tragedy

Since I wrote about the stampede at Germany’s Love Parade on Saturday, a clearer picture of the event has emerged. Eyewitnesses, including some readers of this blog, have stated that the deaths were not due to a panicked stampede, but rather to the simple force of human bodies pressing forward into a dead-end space. Writes Keith Martin:

It wasn’t fear. It was necessity. I was in there. It was poor planning and far too many people. We were all stuck in a tunnel… NO WAY OUT. There was a mile long line of people behind us and when the venue filled, they simply closed the gates. We had nowhere to go and people kept pushing. Once exhaustion/dehydration set in people could no longer stand or remain conscious so they would collapse and people would fall on them and a body pile would assemble, with those at the body never getting back up. It wasnt fear… People had no choice but to crush each other.

Reader Mats writes:

I also was there, and have to agree with Keith. There was no panic and no stampede, there was just a slow grind as the enclosed area filled up with more and more people, and the ones in front were told to move back again against the people coming in, and people falling trying to climb out… I was in the crowd well before the big crush happened – I was into the festival area at 15:00 – but even then the crowd was intense and I saw with my own eyes a lifeless body being carried out on a stretcher from the tunnel. Ironically, the first thing I did when getting into the entrance area was what you recommend, taking note of exits and escape routes with the intention of getting out ASAP – only to find there was not a single one. There was really no way out, not from the entrance area, the festival area or from the crowd. Even if the entrance had worked, in my mind there is no question there would be an equal incident on the actual parade grounds – even there every single exit was locked down and not opened before the disaster was a fact.

I was careful to point out in my original post that the psychology of panic is only half the story when it comes to crowd stampedes; once the mass shoving is underway, the question of automatic versus deliberate action becomes irrelevant. In the case of the Duisburg tragedy, it seems that what happened wasn’t really the result of a stampede at all, in the strict sense, but rather a kind of slow-motion build up of pressure onto a crowd with no avenue for escape. At any rate, an investigation into the incident is currently underway, so hopefully in due time fuller answers will emerge.

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Filed under: Panic

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

In an Encounter with a Cougar, Four Different Ways to Panic

The new issue of The Brain, Discover magazine’s newsstand special, is now out, and with it an excerpt from Extreme Fear in which I discuss Sue Yellowtail’s struggle with a mountain lion in a remote canyon in southwestern Colorado:

At 25, Sue Yellowtail was just a few years out of college, working for the Ute Indian tribe as a water quality specialist. Her job was to travel through remote areas of the reservation, collecting samples from the streams, creeks, and rivers. She spent her days criss-crossing remote backcountry, territory closed to visitors, and rarely traveled even by locals. It’s the kind of place where, if you got in trouble, you were on your own.

On a clear, cold morning in late December Yellowtail pulled her pickup over to the side of the little-traveled dirt double-track, a few yards from a simple truss bridge that spanned the creek. As she collected her gear she heard a high-pitched scream. Probably a coyote killing a rabbit, she thought. She clambered down two steep embankments to the water’s edge. Wading to the far side of the creek, she stooped to stretch her tape measure the width of the flow. Just then she heard a rustling and looked up. At the top of the bank not 30 feet away, stood a mountain lion. Tawny against the brown leaves of the riverbank brush, the animal was almost perfectly camouflaged. It stared down at her, motionless.

She stood stock still.

As I go on to explain, Yellowtail had entered the first instinctual fear-response state, the condition of freezing known as attentive immobility. But her trial had just begun. Within the next 15 minutes, she would pass through the three other distinct forms of panic. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Animal attack, 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

Do Toyota Drivers Suffer From Faulty Brakes, or Errant Panic Circuitry?

At first, it sounded like a straightforward case of a faulty product in need of a recall. Last summer, Toyota “‘became aware of rare cases where the accelerator pedal did not return to its idle position as swiftly as it ideally should.” It started changing the way it produced the pedals in question. Then, when it realized that further design issues could cause problems, it recalled 4.2 million vehicles. But the automaker’s problems didn’t go away. Within months, it realized that another problem with the pedals’ design could cause them to stick, and so started a recall of another 2.4 million vehicles.

Here’s where things began to get strange. Even as Toyota moved to correct problems with its accelerators, reports of malfunctions skyrocketed. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Panic

Sinking Ships: Why Some Passengers Panic, Some Don’t

Via Not Exactly Rocket Science: The Times of London has a fascinating, if flawed, piece investigating the different patterns of behavior exhibited by passengers aboard the Titanic and those aboard the Lusitania, which sank three years later.

When the Titanic hit an iceberg four days into her maiden voyage to New York, on April 14, 1912, the maritime maxim of “women and children first” was famously obeyed. Young men aged between 16 and 35 were the least likely to be among the 706 survivors, while women and children were the most likely to be saved. A different story played out, however, when the Lusitania was torpedoed by a German U-boat off Ireland on May 7, 1915. Then, the majority of the survivors were young men and women — fit people in their prime who could fight their way on to the lifeboats.

What was the crucial difference between the two sinkings? According to Bruno Frey and his team at the University of Zurich, it all came down to time. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Panic

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