sinking ship, women and children first
Associated Press

Save Yourself? Sinking Ship Escape Etiquette

January 21, 2011 07:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
Whether passengers on a sinking ship decide to let women and children escape first depends on the speed at which the ship is sinking, a recent study suggests.

Women and Children First?

Researchers from Australia’s Queensland University of Technology and the University of Zurich compared the sinking of the Titanic with that of the Lusitania to explore “under what conditions humans deviate from selfish rationality.”

On April 15, 1912, the world learned that the Titanic had sunk on its maiden voyage across the Atlantic Ocean, killing 1,500 people. The ship collided with an iceberg and sank into the ocean’s icy depths over the course of 2 hours and 40 minutes in the middle of the night.

In 1915, the Lusitania was torpedoed off the coast of Ireland by a German U-boat, and sank in 18 minutes. The attack killed more than 1,000 civilians, including 128 Americans, and prompted the United States’ entry into World War I.

The majority of the survivors of the Titanic disaster “were women, children and people with young children,” Thomas H. Maugh II wrote for the Los Angeles Times, compared to the Lusitania, where they were primarily “young men and women who responded immediately to their powerful survival instincts,” according to the Associated Press.

The two tragedies offered researchers a valuable “natural experiment,” being comparable in the size and demographic makeup of their passenger populations. The main difference between the two disasters was the time it took for each ship to sink. Also notable in the findings were that more passengers from steerage survived the Lusitania’s sinking, implying that social class considerations came into effect during the Titanic’s evacuation.

Chivalry Killed British Men Aboard the Titanic

In 2009, a behavioral economist said that British men were too polite to fight for spots in lifeboats on the sinking Titanic.

British women who survived the Titanic’s sinking testified that their husbands calmly put them on lifeboats and did not fight for their own lives. Researcher David Savage of Queensland University of Technology, who was also part of the recent study of the Lusitania and Titanic, told the BBC that the behavior of British men on the Titanic reflected the Edwardian tenet of behaving like a gentleman.

In contrast, Americans of that time followed a more individualistic code of behavior. Savage found that while Americans were 8.5 percent more likely to survive than passengers from other countries, the British were 7 percent more likely to die. Savage suggests that two factors may have boosted Americans’ survival: They were less likely to politely line up for lifeboats, and most of them were in first-class compartments, which were closer to the lifeboat deck. But he admits that he has no evidence that Americans behaved rudely in their effort to leave the Titanic.

Savage, a behavioral economist, made these observations about the Titanic as part of a larger study of human responses to maritime disasters. His theory is that altruism and social conventions, not desire to survive, have the strongest influence on human behavior in crisis situations. Savage witnessed the same behavioral pattern in the January 2009 US Airways plane crash on the Hudson River; women and children were rescued first.

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