Seventeen years ago, a couple of criminologists at the University of Maryland published an interesting paper about the 1976 District ban on handguns — a ban that was recently overturned by the Supreme Court on the grounds it was inimical to the constitutional right of Americans to bear arms to protect themselves.
The researchers employed a simple procedure: They tabulated all the suicides that had taken place in Washington between 1968 and 1987. Colin Loftin and David McDowall found that the gun ban correlated with an abrupt 25 percent decline in suicides in the city.
Loftin and McDowall, who now work at the University at Albany, part of the State University of New York, also tabulated suicide rates in Maryland and Virginia over the same period, to test whether suicide rates just happened to be declining in the entire region. There was no difference in the suicide rate in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs before and after the D.C. gun ban. The researchers also tabulated the kinds of suicide that declined in Washington: The 25 percent decline was entirely driven by a decline in firearm-related suicide.
There are many ways to read the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, but all the versions point to one core idea: Americans have the right to own guns to protect themselves against outside threats, whether the danger comes from a school shooter, a vicious mugger, a robber breaking into a house, a lawless neighborhood — even the government itself.
What the authors of the Second Amendment did not foresee, however, is that when people own a gun, they unwittingly raise their risk of getting hurt and killed — because the odds that they will one day use their gun to commit suicide are much larger than the odds they will use their gun to defend themselves against intruders, muggers and killers.
States with high rates of gun ownership — Alabama, Idaho, Colorado, Utah, Montana, Wyoming and New Mexico — have suicide rates that are more than double the suicide rate in states with low rates of gun ownership, such as Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Connecticut, Hawaii and New York, said Matthew Miller, an epidemiologist at the Harvard School of Public Health. The difference is not because people in gun-owning states are more suicidal than people in states where fewer people own guns, but that suicide attempts in states with lots of guns produce many more completed suicides.
“The evidence is overwhelming,” said David Hemenway, a professor of health policy at Harvard. “There are a dozen case-controlled studies, all of which show the gun in the home is a risk factor for suicide for the gun owner, for the spouse, for the gun owner’s children.”
Turning a gun on ourselves, or having a family member turn a gun on someone in the household, doesn’t intuitively feel as real a risk as muggers, robbers and murderers. Given the choice between trusting our intuitions and trusting the evidence, most of us go with our gut.
If TV dramas about cops and violence were to actually depict the reality of how death and mayhem usually unfold in America, however, these are the scenarios that would stream into our homes each night: An elderly widower, lonely beyond words, shoots himself. A middle-aged executive, who has lost everything in an economic downturn, throws herself off a tall building. Two teenagers pull a Romeo-and-Juliet-style suicide as a protest against an uncaring world.
The reason we can be sure that suicide — and not assaults, break-ins, muggings, school shootings and other fatal attacks by sinister strangers — would account for most of the stories is that suicide dwarfs homicide as a killer in the United States. There were 32,637 suicides in the country in 2005, the latest year for which statistics are available. That year, the collective homicidal mayhem caused by domestic abusers, violent criminals, gang fights, drug wars, break-ins, shootouts with cops, accidental gun discharges and cold, premeditated murder produced 18,538 deaths.
Even the risk of terrorism doesn’t begin to come close to the risk of suicide.
Only a tiny fraction of the 400,000 suicide attempts that bring Americans into emergency rooms each year involve guns. But because guns are so lethal, 17,002 of all suicides in 2005 — 52 percent — involved people shooting themselves.
The grimness of these statistics repeats itself endlessly, year after year, but makes no difference to our collective fantasies and fears about violence — and the reasons millions of people buy handguns for “protection.” Muggers, robbers and gangs feel scary. Most people don’t think of themselves as potential threats — after all, doesn’t suicide happen only to the insane?
Overwhelmingly, the research suggests suicide is usually an act of impulsive desperation — an impulse that passes. Most people who survive suicide attempts do not go on to kill themselves later on. Gun owners are no more likely than non-gun-owners to be suicidal. But within the window of a mad impulse, people who have lethal means at their disposal are much more likely to kill themselves than those who lack such means.
“If you bought a gun today, I could tell you the risk of suicide to you and your family members is going to be two- to tenfold higher over the next 20 years,” Harvard’s Miller said. “There are not many things you can do to increase your risk of dying tenfold.”Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
I was recently stumped by a seemingly obvious query that I hadn’t really considered. It was asked by a 4th grader: “What,” he wanted to know, “is the downside of creativity? Isn’t it possible that humans are toocreative?”
I muttered something incoherent about nuclear weapons and human ingenuity creating the seeds of its own destruction. I’m pretty sure I quoted Einstein. But I could tell he wasn’t satisfied, that my answer struck him as facile and trite, which it was. So here’s my attempt to give him a better answer, because I think the absurd success of human creativity comes with a real cost.
Geoffrey West, is a brilliant theoretical physicist at the Sante Fe Insititute. (He has done a lot of intriguing work on cities, trying to figure out why cities are “the most important invention in the history of human civilization” and why some cities are so much more innovative than others, at least measured by per capita production of patents.) Although West celebrates the inventiveness of cities – all those knowledge spillovers leads to new knowledge – he is quick to point out that our creativity has its disadvantages. New ideas, after all, have a disturbing tendency to become new things, and things aren’t free.
West illustrates the problem by translating the modern human lifestyle – and we live surrounded by our own inventions – into watts. “A human being at rest runs on 90 watts,” he told me. “That’s how much power you need just to lie down. And if you’re a hunter-gatherer and you live in the Amazon, you’ll need about 250 watts. That’s how much energy it takes to run about and find food. So how much energy does our lifestyle [in America] require? Well, when you add up all our calories and then you add up the energy needed to run the computer and the air-conditioner, you get an incredibly large number, somewhere around 11,000 watts. Now you can ask yourself: What kind of animal requires 11,000 watts to live? And what you find is that we have created a lifestyle where we need more watts than a blue whale. We require more energy than the biggest animal that has ever existed. That is why our lifestyle is unsustainable. We can’t have seven billion blue whales on this planet. It’s not even clear that we can afford to have 300 million blue whales.”
The historian Lewis Mumford described the rise of the megalopolis as “the last stage in the classical cycle of civilization,” which would end with “complete disruption and downfall.” In his more pessimistic moods, West seems to agree: he knows that nothing can trend upward forever, that eventually our creativity will make life utterly unsustainable. In fact, West sees human history as defined by this constant tension between expansion and scarcity, between the relentless growth made possible by our creativity and the limited resources that hold our growth back.
Of course, the only solution to the problem of human innovation is more innovation. After a resource is exhausted, we are forced to exploit a new resource, if only to sustain our craving for growth. West cites a long list of breakthroughs to illustrate this historical pattern, from the discovery of the steam engine to the invention of the Internet. “These major innovations completely changed the way society operates,” West says. “It’s like we’re on the edge of a cliff, about to run out of something, and then we find a new way of creating wealth. That means we can start to climb again.”
But the escape is only temporary, as every innovation eventually leads to new shortages. We clear-cut forests, and so we turn to oil; once we exhaust our fossil-fuel reserves, we’ll start driving electric cars, at least until we run out of lithium. Although human creativity has generated a seemingly impossible amount of economic growth, it has also inspired the innovations that allow the growth to continue. So here’s the paradox: creativity is the only solution to the very real problem of creativity.
There is a serious complication to this triumphant narrative of cliff edges and innovation, however. Because our lifestyle has become so expensive to maintain, every new resource now becomes exhausted at a faster rate. This means that the cycle of innovations has to constantly accelerate, with each breakthrough providing a shorter reprieve. The end result is that our creativity isn’t just increasing the pace of life; it is also increasing the pace at which life changes. “It’s like being on a treadmill that keeps on getting faster,” West says. “We used to get a big revolution every few thousand years. And then it took us a century to go from the steam engine to the internal-combustion engine. Now we’re down to about 15 years between big innovations. What this means is that, for the first time ever, people are living through multiple revolutions.”
Needless to say, such revolutions aren’t fun. They’re unsettling and disruptive. But they appear to be the inevitable downside of our ceaseless ingenuity, for creativity comes with a multiplier effect: new ideas beget more new ideas. The treadmill is going fast. And it’s getting faster.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Manhood is a “precarious” status — difficult to earn and easy to lose. And when it’s threatened, men see aggression as a good way to hold onto it. These are the conclusions of a new article by University of South Florida psychologists Jennifer K. Bosson and Joseph A. Vandello. The paper is published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
“Gender is social,” says, Bosson. “Men know this. They are powerfully concerned about how they appear in other people’s eyes.” And the more concerned they are, the more they will suffer psychologically when their manhood feels violated. Gender role violation can be a big thing, like losing a job, or a little thing, like being asked to braid hair in a laboratory.
In several studies, Bosson and her colleagues used that task to force men to behave in a “feminine” manner, and recorded what happened. In one study, some men braided hair; others did the more masculine — or gender-neutral — task of braiding rope. Given the options afterwards of punching a bag or doing a puzzle, the hair-braiders overwhelmingly chose the former. When one group of men braided hair and others did not, and all punched the bag, the hair-braiders punched harder. When they all braided hair and only some got to punch, the non-punchers evinced more anxiety on a subsequent test.
Aggression, write the authors, is a “manhood-restoring tactic.”
When men use this tactic, or consider it, they tend to feel they were compelled by outside forces to do so. Bosson and her colleagues gave men and women a mock police report, in which either a man or a woman hit someone of their own sex after that person taunted them, insulting their manhood (or womanhood). Why did the person get violent? When the protagonist was a woman, both sexes attributed the act to character traits, such as immaturity; the women also said this about the male aggressors. But when the aggressor was a man, the men mostly believed he was provoked; humiliation forced him to defend his manhood.
Interestingly, people tend to feel manhood is defined by achievements, not biology. Womanhood, on the other hand, is seen primarily as a biological state. So manhood can be “lost” through social transgressions, whereas womanhood is “lost” only by physical changes, such as menopause.
Who judges manhood so stringently? “Women are not the main punishers of gender role violations,” says Bosson. Other men are.
Bosson says that this area of research gives psychological evidence to sociological and political theories calling gender a social, not a biological, phenomenon. And it begins to demonstrate the negative effects of gender on men — depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, or violence.
The work has also changed Bosson personally. “When I was younger I felt annoyed by my male friends who would refuse to hold a pocketbook or say whether they thought another man was attractive. I thought it was a personal shortcoming that they were so anxious about their manhood. Now I feel much more sympathy for men.”
J. K. Bosson, J. A. Vandello. Precarious Manhood and Its Links to Action and Aggression. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2011Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
What does famed urbanist William “Holly” Whyte have in common with David Simon’s award-winning television series The Wire? They both understood the importance of street corners. On The Wire, drug slingers battle for control of Baltimore’s choicest retail outlets; “them corners” offer strategic advantage: double the traffic, better sightlines, more escape routes, and the presence of businesses, magnets for potential customers.
Several decades earlier, Whyte, in his films of New York City street life, identified the street corner as an important factor in urban dynamics. Here was a zone of serendipity where people encountered one another beneath the blinking walk man, where they paused to chat before parting, where they formed small convivial islands just as pedestrian flow was surging most strongly. Even today, corners offer new uses; one often finds people talking there on their mobile devices, either held up by the signal or forgetting to move after the signal has changed. Either way, the corner is urban punctuation, a place to pause, essential to the whole civic grammar.
And so it’s appropriate that Jeff Zupan and I are stopped on a New York corner—at 34th and Broadway—watching how pedestrians navigate a typical crowded crosswalk. In 1975 Zupan wrote (with Boris Pushkarev), one of the seminal books on how people move on foot in cities, Urban Space for Pedestrians. Although he now lives in the suburbs, his ardor for the bipedal New Yorker is undiminished. At one point, after walking a while, I offer to buy him a drink at a sidewalk stand. He bristles. “I don’t patronize food carts,” he says. The reason? They take up sidewalk space on already crowded thoroughfares. Outside of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, he pauses briefly to berate a tour bus driver, whose empty bus sits idly, its engine sending a noisy blast of hot air onto the sidewalks. The driver briefly looks up from his New York Post and, sensing no immediate physical threat, resumes reading.
I have gone out today on a stroll with Zupan in the tradition of the Peripatetics, those ancient Greek scholars who were said, perhaps apocryphally, to accompany Aristotle on walking lectures. My purpose is to study the pedestrian in his natural setting (the most-walked city in the U.S.) and to bring to light the discrete dynamics that lie beneath this achingly commonplace activity—which, like most commonplace activities, rewards a further look. Zupan, my Aristotle, represents a bridge to the past, when the best way to understand how people moved on foot was to watch them; an approach that has been slowly eclipsed by computer modeling, which automatically counts pedestrians in large flows, tracks their movements, and then, via algorithms, tries to predict what they’ll do next. But this morning, it’s strictly old school, jostling amid the darter fish, the lumbering wildebeest, and every other genus of Gotham pedestrian. What better way to understand pedestrians than to be out among them, with the man who knows them best?
Crosswalks, like corners, have their own dynamics. Zupan points to two large groups paused on opposite corners across 34th. They are distributed widely across the curb cut. As the signal changes, they begin to walk, but as Zupan notes, they don’t veer to the right as they would on a sidewalk. Instead, the two groups meet in the middle, and there’s what Zupan calls a “bulge” at the midpoint, as walkers spill beyond the painted confines of the crosswalk, sifting through each other’s directionality.
A few blocks later, Zupan wants to demonstrate what he calls “shy distance”: how close you get to an approaching person with whom you are bound to collide before one of you shifts to the side. The process is sometimes anticipated with a kind of foreplay, what Nicholson Baker in The Mezzanine described as “the mutual bobbings you exchange with an oncoming pedestrian, as both of you lurch to indicate whether you are going to pass to the right or to the left.” Scanning the sidewalks, Zupan announces, “I’m going to find someone who’s not looking at their phone. I usually try to find someone smaller than me.” He finds his mark: an ordinary commuter in Dockers and oxford shift, striding purposefully. Zupan puts his head down, and gets to within a few feet before the man breaks right, shooting back an irritated glare. (As Zupan wrote in Urban Space, “Pedestrians have been found to take evasive action anywhere from 2 to 17 ft ahead of a stationary or moving obstacle.”)
What might be for some the unchoreographed whir of the city is for Zupan a set of discrete patterns; if a pattern can’t be observed, it probably just means you haven’t looked long enough. Block by block, they emerge: The way people drift toward the shady side of the street on hot days; the way women (in particular) avoid subway grating on the sidewalk; the way walking speeds are slower at midday than before or after work; the way people don’t like to maintain the same walking speed as a stranger next to them; the way tourists walk in inappropriately spread out groups (a phenomenon captured by this satirical call for “tourist lanes”); the way sidewalk planters, parking meters, and other obstacles reduce the “effective width” of sidewalks, which have been under slow and steady spatial assault since the early 20th century.
One place Zupan spent a lot of time during his research was Penn Station, the very place we had met that morning (where the queue at the Starbucks alone was worthy of study). During the period he was working on the book, Penn was experiencing an upsurge in ridership; the station and the surrounding streets were becoming untenable. “There were situations where it was so crowded where even slow walkers had to go slower than they would like.” When he began the research, pedestrians were still something of an unknown quantity, and indeed, his work was part of a small renaissance in pedestrian studies that flourished in the 1970s, producing works from John Fruin’s landmark—and still consulted—book Pedestrian Engineering, to sociological studies like Erving Goffman’s Relations in Public or Michael Prager’s People in Places. Every street corner was a stage-set of human interaction, no behavior too small to be insignificant. One typical study found that when two pedestrians passed closely to another, the majority of women turned away from the other walker, while the majority of men turned toward the opposing pedestrian. “We were learning by just going out in the field,” Zupan says. “If there was something we didn’t understand, we went out and took a look.”
For example: When do people choose to take the escalator versus the stairs? How crowded does the former have to be before the latter is chosen? Standing by a bank of short escalators and stairs exiting to Eighth Avenue, we watch a small queue form at the “up” escalator (not surprisingly, people are more likely to take stairs going down than up). What Zupan found, then as now, is that people’s desire to avoid exertion is relatively high. “To take the most extreme example, when the stairs in the subway are five flights, what’s the percentage of people who will take them?” The answer: About four percent. The people Zupan calls the “health addicts.” He adds: “I was one of them.” Contrary to what you might expect, escalators do not actually improve efficiency. “If you count the per square foot width on an escalator, plus the acceptance rate”—i.e., how willing people are to stand near each other—“it’s about the same as stairs.” And when people walk on an escalator, the capacity is, a bit counterintuitively, reduced, because of the subsequent shuffling—and accidents. (Escalator walking was actually banned in Japan.) What escalators do, simply, is reduce the amount of energy people have to exert (and during rush hours, an escalator is often the only way people are assured of being able to go against the cresting tide of directional flow).
Since Zupan’s research, a few new behaviors have come on the scene. One behavior pointed out to me by traffic engineer Sam Schwartz is people pausing before they enter the stairs of a subway station to check their mobile device one last time. Who knows what this social hiccup does to the overall efficiency? Recent research by the New York City Department of Transportation has found that when walkers talk on the phone, they walk more slowly, and when they wear headphones, they actually walk faster. As Zupan told me, “There are a lot of really microscopic dynamics—as Yogi Berra said, ‘You can see a lot just by observing.’ ”
Despite the advances of early walking-theorists like Zupan, there is a great deal of mystery and academic disputation that surrounding this fundamental human task. What’s the purpose of swinging arms, balance or propulsion? Which muscles contribute most to the body’s “angular momentum”? What part does our vision play in walking. (It was once thought we used our eyes to only plan a step, not monitor and “fine tune” its ongoing progress, but recent research suggests otherwise.)
The complexity of walking is perhaps best appreciated by those who can no longer do it, or need mechanical assistance. Alena Grabowski, a researcher at the University of Colorado who has done extensive work with prosthetic devices (including the question of whether a runner with a device has an unfair edge), says it’s not simply a question of the foot—“one of the more complex designs you’ve got,” with 20 bones in each and any number of directional possibilities. There are a number of systems that come into play. Take the knee. “The knee is challenging, there’s so much weight bearing on the leg. You need to have something that not only goes forward, but side to side, or up a hill, to catch a bus. There’s so many different things you want to model.”
As Laurie Anderson once noted, when we walk, we are always falling, and then always catching ourselves. Walking is known as a “learned motor behavior,” done without conscious thought. Walking is so second-nature that even certain types of walking become ingrained. A few years ago, a pair of researchers at London’s Imperial College identified what they called the “broken escalator” phenomenon: When people walk onto an escalator that is not moving, they still sense a “sway,” and adapt their gait accordingly. The reason, the researchers argued, was not a perceptual illusion, but a “motor adaptation.” Something tickles us at the back of the brain, and our feet respond in kind.
Escalators and stairs are, it turns out, problem points in walking, and not just for the commuters at Penn Station. As John Templar notes in his oddly fascinating book The Staircase, an estimate for one U.S. year found that more than 6,000 people died as a result of a fall on stairs or a ramp. Studies have noted that most stair accidents involve either the first three or last three stairs on a flight. “On these high risk-steps,” Templar writes, “many orientation factor changes occur—route direction change, changes of view, and very large changes of illumination.” As we come to the top or bottom of a stair, we are preparing to change our gait, and we may be looking ahead to where we’re going next. We are distracted pedestrians. What’s more, when we fall, Templar notes, “our natural defense reaction systems will not help much until after we have already fallen about one step of 7 inches (18 cm).” The design of the stair and the tread plays a largely hidden, but crucial role; in one problematic staircase, the stairs were marked with lines parallel to the edge of the tread. In six weeks, 1,400 people fell on the stair: They were confusing the marked line with the actual edge of the tread.
If walking is, as one researcher describes it, a “complex dynamic task that requires the generation of whole-body angular momentum to maintain dynamic balance while performing a wide range of locomotor subtasks such as providing body support, forward propulsion and accelerating the leg into swing,” it’s no surprise that the collectivity of all this motion, coupled with the vagaries of human psychology (among other constraints) should prove such a rich field of study, demanding analytical power equal to that required at higher order institutes of physics. Pedestrians have been interviewed, tracked, modeled, asked to navigate artificial environments, and placed in wind tunnels.
Wind tunnels? Another form of pedestrian research emerging in the 1970s was the effect of tall buildings on people, and general benchmarks for urban pedestrian comfort. This was done, in part, as an ex post facto response to poor design; Minoru Yamasaki’s World Trade Center, for example, generated such ground-level gusts that, as the New York Times noted, “on certain days wind conditions at 140 West Street were so severe that pedestrians needed to hold onto ropes to allow travel.” In England, there were cases of pedestrians being killed by building-generated winds. And so people, wearing representative garments to establish “drag area” benchmarks, were trundled into the kind of wind tunnels used for aerodynamics and subjected to various gales.
The basic issue, as explained to me by Bert Blocken, a professor of Urban Physics and Building Physics at the Technical University Eindhoven (the Netherlands is the one country in the world with a “wind nuisance” standard), is that tall buildings “catch” wind. “The most intense cases are where you only have a few high rise buildings and the rest are low rise,” he says. “The tall building deviates the wind to the ground level, where it has to find its way through the network of streets.” The corners of buildings are particular trouble spots—people may not be expecting the gust as they round the corner. Architects are often not sensitive to the effect their buildings will have on people, leaving people like Blocken to come in and retrofit. In a building in Antwerp, an architect’s winning proposal featured a passageway running entirely through the building. But Blocken’s model showed it would be, in essence, a wind tunnel. In the resulting compromise, people entering the building at one end must push a button to enter the sliding doors, and, as a sign informs them, if the set at the other end of the building is open, they must wait until the other set is closed.
Since the early work of Zupan and colleagues, the body of walking knowledge has grown. We know, among other things, that nearly half of all daily walking “bouts,” as researchers dub trips, are 12 steps or fewer. It has been observed that men walk faster than women, and that walking speed is correlated to socioeconomic standing. In Copenhagen, as Jan Gehl writes in Cities for People, “on Copenhagen’s main walking street, Strøget, pedestrian traffic on cold winter days is 35 percent faster than on good summer days.” In New York, it was observed that streets with more people carrying bags had higher walking speeds. There are basic principles that have been established about group pedestrian behavior; e.g., per one study, “an individual pedestrian diverges for a group of two or more pedestrians.” As people approach a bottleneck, they tend to walk straight; as they slow to enter it, they begin to “oscillate” from side to side. There is more anecdotal research as well. As I walked one afternoon with Fred Kent, president of the Project for Public Spaces, he recalled his microscopic studies of Madison Avenue in the early 1970s, part of a project funded by National Geographic. (The street, presumably, was an exotic as a Sumatran rain forest.) “I spent one day analyzing a waste basket, another day with pickpocket detectives,” he says. He recalls talking to the owner of a small cosmetics store, which leased the front of a wig store. “I went in and asked him, you have 39,000 people going by, how do you like your location?” He was unhappy, it turned out, because he was next to a bank. “When they walk past the bank, they speed up. It takes three or four stores to get back into a normal walking rhythm.”
Much of this accumulated knowledge is now being plowed back into increasingly sophisticated computer models, which in their scope and analytical power tend to dwarf the earlier analog efforts, allowing planners to peer ever deeper into ever larger and complex crowds. One afternoon I traveled to 23rd Street to visit Legion, creators of the world’s first dedicated pedestrian modeling software. As I enter the building, I imagine myself transforming from a person on foot to—in the cold, binary eyes of Legion—a “two-dimensional ‘entity’ with a circular body, which moves in 2D continuous space, in 0.6s time step.” When I meet Dan Plottner, Legion’s (three-dimensional) vice president for business development, one of the first things he tells me is how hard it is to model people, as opposed to people in cars. “A car traveling in a lane doesn’t stop, do a 180 degree turn, and turn around and come the other way.”
At the heart of the company’s algorithms is the idea that a “person, when they walk, is seeking to minimize their dissatisfaction.” On foot, as with life itself! “The same way you can plot density on a map,” Plottner says, “you can plot frustration.” But this simple statement—minimizing dissatisfaction—explains a lot. It is why people take the escalator (and disdain elevated walkways or subterranean tunnels), it is why pedestrians will begin to rampantly jaywalk if you make them wait too long, it is why they trample “desire lines” on aloofly chained-off college quadrangles. As a British engineer once told me, “pedestrians are natural Pythagoreans”—they will always seek the shortest path.
The Legion model seeks to understand, with each step the pedestrian takes, what their next step will be, based on a mathematically weighted combination of three factors (the tolerance for, and wish to avoid, inconvenience, frustration, and discomfort). More minor things are often observed—people pausing briefly in London before exiting a transit station to see if it’s raining—but not fully modeled yet. (Plottner notes the company already has some 9 million pedestrian measurements.) Getting large crowds of people to move smoothly often involves negating people’s own natural inclinations. In London, or in Chinese cities, he notes, it is common to see a long railing at the bottom of pairs of escalators. “It forces you to take a few extra steps,” he says. “Every time we turn, we’re always trying to cut the corner, always trying to get a leg up on that other person. This removes the conflict area from the base of the escalator.” Similarly, Legion’s models for sports stadiums and other large facilities often show circular switchbacks in staircases can handle more people than square. “People are better about following the outline of the wall,” says Plottner. “They don’t feel like it’s causing them extra work.”
As cities become more crowded, with more people pushing through congested centers, Plottner says modeling becomes crucial. “When things get dense, they don’t behave in a way that makes sense,” he says. “That’s what simulation can help you unlock.” An example of this can be found at Vesey Street in lower Manhattan, between Church and West Broadway, just adjacent to the former World Trade Center site. In the morning rush, some 15,000 people per hour course down this single passage. In an effort to keep the tide from simply overwhelming the cross streets, the city has installed special fluorescent-vested “pedestrian managers,” who stretch chains across the sidewalk when the “Don’t Walk” signal is activated. When I passed by one morning and dismounted my bike, preparing to walk, I quickly gave up—with my added baggage, I simply couldn’t find an entry point among the tightly compressed torrent of commuters. “People tend to order themselves more when it’s congested,” Plottner says. “So a congested system is more efficient than an uncongested system.”
There was just one problem with Vesey: It occasionally needs to be used by trucks accessing the Trade Center construction site. Simply blocking off the street and forcing people to detour, Legion’s models showed, increased the amount of time people would have to walk by 70 percent. What about halting people temporarily while trucks entered and exited? One morning, in the offices of Sam Schwartz, a team of engineers working on the Vesey Street congestion ran through various simulations. (Schwartz uses Legion, among other tools.) On a large screen, I watched thousands of small dots swarming from the transit station, with various color-coded swirls indicating density. What the models showed is that when you held groups for upward of 90 seconds, you had “crush volumes.” At volumes of more than seven people per square meter, the engineer Jon Fruin once noted, crowds become, in essence, a liquid mass. “Shock waves can be propagated through the mass, sufficient to … propel them distances of 3 meters or more. … People may be literally lifted out of their shoes, and have clothing torn off.”
There were actually two risks, Schwartz told me: Crush, and people backing up and toppling down the escalators. A compromise was reached: The gate to the site could be open no longer than 45 seconds (and this would be closely monitored). Morgan Whitcomb, a Schwartz engineer, told me: “We did practice runs to make sure the construction operations could time it perfectly with a truck coming in. They can do it in as little as 30 seconds.”
Modeling pedestrians works best for discrete flows in concentrated spaces, when masses of people are trying to get somewhere with purpose. “We can’t do people loitering in Times Square,” says Plottner. “We don’t understand why their behavior is what it is.” Neither do many New Yorkers, but there is something comforting in the fact that some human behaviors—pausing to admire the play of light on a 19th-century cornice, crossing the street to avoid that earnest-looking person with the clipboard, holding the door for someone at the entrance to a crowded building and finding yourself caught in a cycle of politeness as you anxiously decide when to relinquish your impromptu role as doorman—can’t easily be reduced to math.
Happiness is contagious, spreading among friends, neighbors, siblings and spouses like the flu, according to a large study that for the first time shows how emotion can ripple through clusters of people who may not even know each other.
The study of more than 4,700 people who were followed over 20 years found that people who are happy or become happy boost the chances that someone they know will be happy. The power of happiness, moreover, can span another degree of separation, elevating the mood of that person’s husband, wife, brother, sister, friend or next-door neighbor.
“You would think that your emotional state would depend on your own choices and actions and experience,” said Nicholas A. Christakis, a medical sociologist at Harvard University who helped conduct the study published online today by BMJ, a British medical journal. “But it also depends on the choices and actions and experiences of other people, including people to whom you are not directly connected. Happiness is contagious.”
One person’s happiness can affect another’s for as much as a year, the researchers found, and while unhappiness can also spread from person to person, the “infectiousness” of that emotion appears to be far weaker.
Previous studies have documented the common experience that one person’s emotions can influence another’s — laughter can trigger guffaws in others; seeing someone smile can momentarily lift one’s spirits. But the new study is the first to find that happiness can spread across groups for an extended period.
When one person in the network became happy, the chances that a friend, sibling, spouse or next-door neighbor would become happy increased between 8 percent and 34 percent, the researchers found. The effect continued through three degrees of separation, although it dropped progressively from about 15 percent to 10 percent to about 6 percent before disappearing.
The research follows previous work by Christakis and co-author James H. Fowler that found that obesity also appears to spread from person to person, as does the likelihood of quitting smoking. The researchers have been using detailed records originally collected by the Framingham Heart Study, a long-running project that has explored a host of health issues, to construct and analyze detailed maps of social networks.
The findings, Christakis and others said, provide striking new evidence of the power of social networks, which could have implications for public policy. Happy people tend to be better off in myriad ways, being more creative, productive and healthier.
“For a long time, we measured the health of a country by looking at its gross domestic product,” said Fowler, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego who co-authored the study. “But our work shows that whether a friend’s friend is happy has more influence than a $5,000 raise. So at a time when we’re facing such economic difficulties, the message could be, ‘Hang in there. You still have your friends and family, and these are the people to rely on to be happy.’ “
Other experts praised the study as a landmark in the growing body of evidence documenting the influence of personal connections and the importance of positive emotions.
“It’s a pathfinding article,” said Martin E.P. Seligman, a University of Pennsylvania psychologist. “It’s totally original, and the findings are striking.”
Stanley Wasserman, who studies social networks at Indiana University, said: “We’ve known that one’s network ties are important, but we’ve never looked at anything on this scale. The implications are you can’t look at individuals as little entities devoid of their social context.”
Others, however, questioned the findings, noting that it is difficult to account for every variable that might affect the outcomes of such studies.
“Researchers should be cautious in attributing correlations in health outcomes of close friends in social network effects,” wrote Ethan Cohen-Cole of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston and Jason M. Fletcher of Yale University in an accompanying study. Their research used data from a large federal survey to show that acne, headaches and even height could appear to spread through social networks if not analyzed properly. “The methods of detecting ‘social network effects’ of health outcomes commonly found in the recent medical literature might produce effects where none exists.”
But Christakis said his analysis took other possible explanations into consideration. Ed Diener, a psychologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said the findings could explain why people in some countries tend to be happier than others. “This is an extremely exciting study — interesting, provocative and important,” Diener said.
While obesity appeared to spread even among people who lived far apart, happiness appears to be transmitted only among people who live within a mile of one another. The influence was also greatest among people who considered themselves mutual friends.
Because the researchers did not find the effect for people living on the same block beyond a next-door neighbor, they were confident that the positive mood was not the result of living in the same good neighborhood. Because people tended to get happier if someone they knew became happy, the researchers could rule out the alternative explanation that happy people tend to be drawn to each other.
“We know it’s not a ‘birds of a feather flock together’ effect,” Christakis said. Surprisingly, happiness had no such effect at work. The researchers speculated that work relationships may have different dynamics. One worker might become happy because he or she got a raise or a promotion at the expense of another, for example.
Unhappiness also appeared to be catching, but not as strongly: An unhappy connection increased the chances of being unhappy by about 7 percent on average, while a happy connection increased the chances of being happy by about 9 percent. While having more friends is important for a person’s happiness, the benefit of having more friends appears to be canceled out if they are unhappy, the researchers found.
The researchers and others speculated that the emotion may be important on an evolutionary level by helping people cooperate. Seligman likened happiness to an orchestra tuning up.
“Laughter and singing and smiling tune the group emotionally,” Seligman said. “They get them on the same wavelength so they can work together more effectively as group.”
Washington Post: Friday, December 5, 2008Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
We Americans like to think of ourselves as strong, rugged and supremely confident — a nation of Marlboro Men and Marlboro Women, minus the cigarettes and the lung cancer. So why do we increasingly find ourselves hunkered behind walls, popping pills by the handful to stave off diseases we might never contract and eyeing the rest of the world with an us-or-them suspicion that borders on the pathological?
Last week, I heard some of the nation’s leading cultural anthropologists try to explain these and other phenomena. I came away convinced that we, as a nation, definitely should seek professional help.
The American Anthropological Association held its annual meeting here in Washington, and I was invited to an afternoon-long panel discussion titled “The Insecure American.” I decided to overlook the fact that my hosts, Hugh Gusterson of George Mason University and Catherine Besteman of Colby College, had recently co-edited a book called “Why America’s Top Pundits Are Wrong.”
“The Insecure American” turned out to be a revelation — by turns alarming, depressing and laugh-out-loud amusing — as scholar after scholar presented research showing just how unnerved this society is.
Setha Low, who teaches at the City University of New York, has spent years studying the advent and increase of gated communities. People decide to sequester their families behind walls because they are afraid of crime, they feel isolated from their neighbors, and they’re nostalgic for a kind of idealized Norman Rockwell past, Low reported. Nothing terribly irrational about that.
But after extensive interviews with residents of gated communities in San Antonio and on Long Island, Low discovered that there isn’t really less crime behind the walls, people don’t really feel more secure, and there was no greater sense of small-town closeness among neighbors. Despite the gates and guard huts, people still felt they needed to set their alarm systems.
Joseph Dumit of the University of California at Davis presented his work arguing that health care has been redefined into a statistical exercise in risk reduction. The average American fills nearly 13 prescriptions a year, Dumit said, and many of the drugs are not to make the patient well but to reduce the statistical risk that the person will become ill. People who are otherwise healthy are prescribed statins to lower their cholesterol, for example, or beta blockers for high blood pressure.
Dumit pointed out that this risk-driven approach assumes that every one of us is “inherently ill.” It also drives health-care costs by pushing doctors and drug companies to spend whatever it takes to incrementally reduce a patient’s risk of getting sick — even though some of those patients never would have gotten sick, anyway.
Susan F. Hirsch, a professor at George Mason University, gave a riveting presentation on how terrorism feeds insecurity. Hirsch’s husband, Abdulrahman Abdullah, was killed in the 1998 al-Qaeda bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. When some of the alleged perpetrators faced justice in a New York courtroom in 2001, Hirsch began attending the trial as a victim. She ended up studying it as an anthropologist, concluding that the legal system, while imperfect, was the best way to deal with terrorists.
Catherine Lutz of Brown University reported on her studies of what President Dwight D. Eisenhower called the “military-industrial complex.” She noted that the immense resources this country devotes to war-making are based on assumptions that anthropologists might not accept as given — that war is embedded in human nature, for example, and therefore can never be consigned to our barbarian past, as was done with slavery.
Lee Baker of Duke University, Brett Williams of American University and other presenters described their research on economic insecurity, driven by forces such as globalization, immigration and gentrification.
And Nancy Scheper-Hughes, a professor of medical anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley, had me wincing as she talked about her investigations of what she called “vulture capitalism” — the global trade in body parts for transplant. The fastest-growing segment of kidney transplant recipients, Scheper-Hughes said, consists of patients over 70; when they can’t get a needed organ from the transplant registry, she said, they often ask a healthy child or grandchild to donate.
To recap: We’re afraid of one another, we’re afraid of the rest of the world, we’re afraid of getting sick, we’re afraid of dying. Maybe if we study our insecurities and confront them, we’ll learn to keep them in check. Before we turn the whole nation into one big, paranoid gated community, maybe we’ll learn that life isn’t really any better behind the walls.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Men’s Health ranks 100 American cities to find where people are most pissed off.
How did they gauge rage? Statistically (and from a safe distance). They calculated the number of aggravated assaults per capita (FBI), the number of people with high blood pressure (CDC), the amount of time spent in traffic during rush hour (Texas Transportation Institute), and the number of anger-management specialists per capita (American Psychological Association).
From most (100) to least angry cities (1)
100 Detroit, MI
99 Baltimore, MD
98 St. Petersburg, FL
97 Las Vegas, NV
96 Newark, NJ
95 Charleston, WV
94 Dallas, TX
93 Houston, TX
92 Philadelphia, PA
91 Miami, FL
90 Riverside, CA
89 Memphis, TN
88 Oklahoma City, OK
87 Louisville, KY
86 Los Angeles, CA
85 Jersey City, NJ
84 Fort Worth, TX
83 Jacksonville, FL
82 Indianapolis, IN
81 Boston, MA
80 Chicago, IL
79 Orlando, FL
78 New Orleans, LA
77 Stockton, CA
76 Oakland, CA
75 Sacramento, CA
4 Washington, DC
73 St. Louis, MO
72 Phoenix, AZ
71 Baton Rouge, LA
70 San Jose, CA
69 Tampa, FL
68 Aurora, CO
67 El Paso, TX
66 Winston-Salem, NC
65 Birmingham, AL
64 Tucson, AZ
63 Santa Ana, CA
62 Bridgeport, CT
61 Billings, MT
60 Tulsa, OK
59 Manchester, NH
58 New York, NY
57 Lexington, KY
56 Little Rock, AR
55 St. Paul, MN
54 Charlotte, NC
53 San Diego, CA
52 Fresno, CA
51 Atlanta, GA
50 Cleveland, OH
49 Columbus, OH
48 Lubbock, TX
47 San Antonio, TX
46 Plano, TX
45 Richmond, VA
44 Greensboro, NC
43 Providence, RI
42 Albuquerque, NM
41 Denver, CO
40 Austin, TX
39 Kansas City, MO
38 Jackson, MS
37 Bakersfield, CA
36 Milwaukee, WI
35 San Francisco, CA
34 Chesapeake, VA
33 Corpus Christi, TX
32 Nashville, TN
31 Sioux Falls, SD
30 Raleigh, NC
29 Toledo, OH
28 Laredo, TX
27 Cincinnati, OH
26 Buffalo, NY
25 Minneapolis, MN
24 Norfolk, VA
23 Honolulu, HI
22 Wilmington, DE
21 Durham, NC
20 Seattle, WA
19 Des Moines, IA
18 Fort Wayne, IN
17 Pittsburgh, PA
16 Boise, ID
15 Omaha, NE
14 Portland, ME
13 Virginia Beach, VA
12 Portland, OR
11 Columbia, SC
10 Anchorage, AK
9 Reno, NV
8 Wichita, KS
7 Cheyenne, WY
6 Salt Lake City, UT
5 Madison, WI
4 Colorado Springs, CO
3 Fargo, ND
2 Lincoln, NE
1 Burlington, VT