Disaster Psychology: Protect the Women—If There’s Time

By Andrew Moseman | March 2, 2010 11:36 am

LusitaniaAccording to a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, chivalry just depends on how much time you’ve got.

That was the conclusion Benno Torgler and colleagues arrived at by studying two of history’s most famous shipwrecks: The Titanic, where social norms seem to have prevailed and women and children had a better chance of surviving, and the Lusitania, where they did not. The rapid sinking of the Lusitania appears to have triggered the selfish instinct for survival in its passengers, while the slow sinking of the Titanic may have allowed altruism to reemerge.

More than 1,500 people died when the Titanic struck an iceberg in 1912 and sank over the course of three hours in the freezing waters of the North Atlantic. In their analysis, the researchers studied passenger and survivor lists from both ships, and considered gender, age, ticket class, nationality and familial relationships with other passengers. The differences emerged after a closer look at the survival rates [The New York Times]. Children aboard the Titanic, researchers say, were about 15 percent more likely to survive than adults, and women had more than a 50 percent better chance than men to make it out alive.

But while the Lusitania disaster occurred only three years after the Titanic, researchers say that the passenger reaction was quite different. The Lusitania took just 18 minutes to sink on 7 May 1915, torpedoed by a German U-boat just off Kinsale in Ireland, on a voyage between New York and Liverpool: 1,198 died, and it was literally survival of the fittest among the 639 who escaped [The Guardian]. People between the ages of 16 and 35 had the best chance of surviving the Lusitania, the scientists say, not only because there was so little time, but also because the escape was hazardous and the lifeboats rocked violently.

There are many confounding factors in a disaster, but Torgler argues that time was the key. With the Titanic sinking so slowly, he argues, social norms reemerged: Not only did women and children fare better, but upper class people were more likely to survive the Titanic wreck than the Lusitania, which devolved into a mad dash to the lifeboats. However, psychologist Daniel Kruger says that leadership could play a large role, too. The Titanic crew was more successful in maintaining order than the crew of the Lusitania. “People might be in a state of panic, but if they are reassured there is a system in place, they might be more likely to go along with contingency plans,” Kruger said [Los Angeles Times].

The life-and-death drama of events like the Titanic and Lusitania provide researchers a window to further figure out how people behave under pressure. Torgler and his colleagues are studying the reactions to more recent disasters — namely in the use of text messages, including those sent by people trapped during the World Trade Center attacks on Sept. 11 [The New York Times].

Related Content:
DISCOVER: The Titanic’s Ruin
DISCOVER: The Titanic’s Revenge
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Discoblog: The Navy’s Old Ships Get a Second Life… As Fish Residences

Image: National Archive

  • Jay Fox

    Yeah, you go ahead and text that. Just get the hell out of the way when you do, the rest of us are getting out!

  • Lonely flower

    Did they study many shipwrecks, or just these two examples?
    I think many shipwrecks should be studied before reaching to this conclusion.

  • Dan

    Lonely Flower has a great point. Only two examples? Come on, that’s not science.

  • Cathy A

    Well, you can’t exactly do a double blind controlled study by sinking two ships in the modern day, with identical passenger rosters, and seeing whether the fast sinking affects survival rates. The cost would be astronomical – not to mention the IRB nightmares it would cause!

    Are there other historical data available for shipwrecks? If so, then there definitely needs to be more analysis. This can be considered a preliminary study, one that gives them a working hypothesis.

  • Gina

    “Torgler and his colleagues are studying the reactions to more recent disasters …”

    A disaster can be many things. Maybe including earthquakes, fires, flooding, tornadoes and other phenomenon would be prudent. All have time-lines and severities, include both male, female, children and social factors to them.

  • http://feralboy12.com feralboy12

    Much like unhappy families are each unhappy in their own way, each sinking ship disaster has its own unique qualities. The Titanic smacked an iceberg, the Lusitania was sunk by a torpedo (and had a secondary explosion), the Andrea Dorea suffered a collision, the Indianapolis waited four days for help.
    Interesting subject, though. Like Charlie Brown, I’ve always been fascinated by disaster.

  • Ryan

    I agree with Lonely Flower and Dan that this is far from conclusive, but consider this. Each shipwreck involved thousands of people. While the events numbered only 2, that’s thousands of samples of human behavior. Still, I would agree that meta-confounds do prevent any real conclusive result from being drawn.

  • Greg

    18 minutes is not alot of time. I suspect that it may have been impossible to sort out the passengers and establish order in that amount of time, espcially considering that there would have been mass confusion, smoke and fire, and that the ship was probably listing heavily. Those who could get on just did in no particular order. The crew would have been glad just to get that many passengers off.

  • http://www.sashaworkx.com Sasha

    Before this article, I didn’t really know about the Lusitania. I definitely have heard about the Titanic. I’m going to look into that. Also they should compare more sources because otherwise it’s just a bit weak. However this was still a very interesting article. Thanks.

  • Andrew

    Interesting to reflect that in Titanic many of the lifeboats went half-filled (as I understand it) due to what might be called an excess of chivalry: the crew in charge apparently overinterpreted the mandate for women and children first as w and c only; ?Edwardian codes run amok or (as I suspect) a more atavistic/ev. psych. instinct of males to eliminate rivals/”protect” (dominate) females that may have emerged under pressure… (probably trumped however by survival instinct under Lusitania-like time constraint). Anyway just my $.02.

  • lenni

    it’s curious that they didn’t study the Estonia, where the passengers were very politely instructed by the staff to return to their rooms -and they did, even as the ship sank and hundreds died

  • guy with an essay to write

    wheres the numbers how many women survived and how many men on the Lusitania?


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