20/20 Friday: The Guinness World Records Phenomenon

A man whose entire body is covered in tattoos. A woman who sailed around the world in 71 days.Twenty-two people who crammed themselves in a Mini Cooper. A dog who can balance a glass of water on her nose while climbing a flight of stairs.

What could they possibly have in common? They're all Guinness World Record holders. For the last 53 years, the Guinness World Records books have recorded feats and oddities from the ridiculous to the sublime. The book is matched only by the Bible for popularity. It has attracted people from every country in the world to attempt to set Guinness World Records.

What motivates these individuals? For some it's risking life and limb.

"They like to be on the edge. They like the adrenaline rush. They're addicted to showing themselves, to being exhibitionists," says Dr. Gail Saltz, assistant professor of psychiatry at Weill-Cornell School of Medicine. "And that kind of person is gonna do that kind of feat for Guinness [World Records]."

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For others the thrill comes from being part of something bigger than themselves -- like the largest group hug or the longest bunny hop. For still others it's knowing that a genetic trait is celebrated by Guinness.

"It's a great psychological defense to take something where they may feel not that good, pretty ordinary, or maybe even have a defect, to take something like that and make yourself special," said Saltz.

Every year officials at Guinness World Records receive some 50,000 applications from ordinary people vying for a spot in the book. Some of them have broken existing records such as smashing concrete blocks, others petition for a new category to be added to the list of more than 40,000 records (the record for the youngest professional video gamer was added this year). Still others set out to break their own records. Jackie Bibby is the Guinness World Record holder for "Sharing a Bathtub with the Most Rattlesnakes." On November 5th, Bibby bested his own record of 75 by a dozen snakes bringing the number to 87. He works exclusively with Western Diamondback rattlesnakes which have a potentially fatal bite.

"I like pushing the envelope," said Bibby. "I'm a thrill seeker and, you know, there are those [of us] that are adrenaline junkies."

Guinness World Records gets its name from the Guinness Beer Brewery in Dublin, Ireland. Legend has it that the managing director of the brewery, Sir Hugh Beaver, got into an argument during a shooting party about which was the fastest game bird, the grouse or the golden plover. While searching for an answer, Beaver hit upon the idea of publishing a book with answers to many of the questions that might come up during a drinking session at an Irish pub. In essence, Guinness World Records was launched to help settle bar bets.

The first Guinness World Records was published in 1954 in a limited run of 1,000 copies. (It was originally called The Guinness Book of World Records). Today there are more the 100 million copies of the books in print. It is published in 28 languages and has spawned television shows around the world on which contestants attempt to set Guinness World Records.

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