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.

The Titanic sank slowly, slipping below the surface two hours and 40 minutes after striking its fatal iceberg. The Lusitania, in contrast, went down a swift 18 minutes after being torpedoed. Frey posits that the time pressure of the Lusitania sinking created “a situation in which the short-run flight impulse dominated behaviour.”

As Ed Yong points out on NERS, a major flaw in Frey’s hypothesis is his assertion that the two sinkings were very similar apart from the rapidity with which the disaster unfolded. Apart from differences in design and layout of the ships, the mere fact that the Lusitania took place during wartime may have had a major effect on the psychology of the passengers.

Indeed, if we want to understand how human beings respond to mortal danger, it’s not a very useful strategy to look at century-old disasters and try to extract lessons from whatever documentation survives. A better approach is to conduct experiments using actual, living test subjects in controlled situations. Indeed, there’s an extensive body of research literature on precisely that topic — whole books, even. In short, it’s been well demonstrated that operating under time pressure indeed makes it more difficult to undertake complex reasoning and figure out novel situations.

But it’s also important to remember that, just because a person in a life-or-death situation fails to behave in what we later decide would have been the optimal manner, that doesn’t mean that they were behaving irrationally in context. For one thing, the information available is likely to be quite limited. Imagine that you’re awakened in the middle of the night to find that your ship is listing steeply. You go outside your cabin and find that water is flooding the deck and rising rapidly. What’s going on? All you know is that the ship appears to be sinking. You don’t know where the other passengers are, how much time you’ve got, or what lifesaving equipment is available. Given the state of affairs, a decision to jump in the water and start swimming might be neither selfish nor irrational.

The fact that this is probably the very action that your brain’s primitive fear centers would be urging you to undertake points up an often-overlooked point: just because a behavior is irrational doesn’t mean it’s illogical. Our brain’s fear machinery has been extraordinarily well designed to keep us alive. And though it sometimes makes us behave in ways that seem demeaning — like running away from danger — many times that response turns out in retrospect to be the best course of action.

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