'Women and Children First' Holds Only If a Ship Is Sinking Slowly: Comparison of Disasters Suggests Chivalry Takes Time

By Sanders, Laura | Science News, March 27, 2010 | Go to article overview

'Women and Children First' Holds Only If a Ship Is Sinking Slowly: Comparison of Disasters Suggests Chivalry Takes Time


Sanders, Laura, Science News


Gallantry ruled on the day the Titanic went down in 1912. As the vessel's orchestra played soothing music to calm the passengers, women and children were escorted to the limited supply of lifeboats, leaving healthy young men to go down with the sinking ship.

Three years later, the sinking of the Lusitania by a German torpedo was an altogether different affair. As the civilian passenger ship keeled over in a matter of minutes, young healthy men scrambled to the lifeboats, leaving women and children to drown.

These dramatic differences in behavior aboard a sinking ship may all come down to time, a new study suggests. The Titanic took 2 hours and 40 minutes to sink beneath the waves. The Lusitania, in contrast, went down in 18 minutes. The new results, appearing in a paper published online March 1 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggest that in extreme situations social norms--codified here as women and children first--require time to appear.

"The key is time. This is really a crucial finding," says economist Benno Torgler of Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia. He and his colleagues examined the ships' survival records to see how humans act in extreme situations.

In the melee of rapid, stressful situations, an "every man for himself" mentality may have prevailed. That would explain why young men on the Lusitania saved themselves without regard for fellow passengers. "People had only a couple of minutes. So very instinctive behavior--survival of the fittest--emerged," Torgler says.

Records from the life-or-death situations on board the two ships provide a natural experiment that could never be done in a lab, comments behavioral economist Colin Camerer of Caltech. "Some of these dramatic experiments we can't do, so we look for historical analogs," he says. "Occasionally you stumble upon these gold mines of historical data, and that's what they've got here."

Although the ships sank under different circumstances, the vessels had key similarities that allowed Torgler and colleagues to compare who made it to the lifeboats. The Titanic and the Lusitania carried comparable numbers and types of passengers, making the two ships "similar to a field experiment," Torgler says. …

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