Studying survival on a sinking ship

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Studying survival on a sinking ship

In 1912, the steamship Titanic sank after striking an iceberg in the North Atlantic, killing 1,517. In 1915, the passenger liner Lusitania was torpedoed by a German submarine 15 kilometers off the shores of Ireland, killing 1,313.

Sinking time affected who survived and who perished during two signature shipwrecks of the early 20th century.

In both cases, about 32 percent of the passengers survived, but the Lusitania sank in 18 minutes, while the Titanic took two hours, 40 minutes to go under.

In both cases, the timing may have increased the overall death toll: The Lusitania started listing almost immediately, making the lifeboats difficult to enter and launch. The Titanic, woefully short of lifeboats, sank slowly, and as a result some lifeboats departed partly empty because some passengers were slow to understand that the “unsinkable” vessel was sinking.

Both captains commanded that women and children have first access to the lifeboats.

Although the passenger death rate was similar on both ships, a new study suggests that the timing played a role in which passengers survived and which perished. The quick sinking of the Lusitania resulted in a more even-handed culling, while the slower pace of the Titanic disaster allowed two processes to take place:

Black and white photo of massive ship on water with smoke coming from 4 stacks, smaller ship nearby.
Titanic at sea trials, April 2, 1912. Less than two weeks later, the “unsinkable” ship rammed an iceberg and sank, killing 1,517.

A “pro-social” sorting allowed the ethos of “women and children first” to be enacted on the Titanic, but not the Lusitania. While both men and women aged 16 to 35 survived at a higher rate on the Lusitania (as would be expected by their superior average fitness), women in general on the Titanic were 53 percent more likely to survive than men. Children on the Titanic were 31 percent more likely to survive than adults age 36 and above.

A less beneficent process allowed the richer, first-class passengers more access to the lifeboats on the Titanic, taking advantage of their greater access to crew members who directed the evacuation, and the location of the lifeboats near the first-class staterooms. Titanic’s first-class passengers were 44 percent more likely to survive than third-class passengers.

The results on the Titanic do not mesh with standard economic models that describe the human as essentially a selfish beast, says study author Benno Torgler, a professor of economics at the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia.

Torgler points to another exception from the grim economic picture of pure competition. “Studies of persons caught in situations such as a fire in a night club or a stampede during a rock music concert indicate that a great majority of involved persons did not engage in a ruthless competition. Cooperative rather than selfish behavior was predominant.”

Money talks, even on a sinking ship!

Black and white photo of small crowded boat with oars on open water, holding up to 25 people.
A Titanic lifeboat in a photo taken by a passenger on Carpathia, the ship that came to rescue of the Titanic.

We’re happy to see chivalry at work on a sinking ship, but why did the Titanic’s lifeboats carry an unexpected number of rich passengers? “Time not only allows the social norms to emerge but also social power,” says Torgler. “The well-to-do first class passengers had better access to information about the imminent danger and were aware that the lifeboats were situated close to the first class cabins … and likely tried to obtain the same preferential treatment with respect to lifeboat access as they generally were used to receiving onboard for all other items. People with higher incomes and greater wealth are used to giving orders to employees (in this case the crew), are better informed, and are willing to bargain in the extreme, even offering financial rewards to obtain what they want.”

Sound familiar?

Expert: “First class passengers likely tried to obtain the same preferential treatment with respect to lifeboat access as they generally were used to receiving.”

And why should we care?

The shipwrecks are close to a century old, and when the jetliners that have replaced ocean liners go down, there’s seldom time for selfishness or chivalry. So why bother thinking about behavior in such extreme conditions? “These events demonstrate that the behavior of individuals in disaster events does not follow the traditional mythology of mass panic,” wrote Torgler. “Knowing how humans behave under extreme conditions allows us to gain insights about how varied human behavior can be, depending on differing external conditions.”

When disaster plans are written for cities, nations and institutions, they might as well be based on reality, Torgler adds. “Better disaster plans which take into account actual human behavior will improve the survivability of individuals and ultimately lower the economic costs to all. To do this, society needs a better understanding of actual human behavior in disaster events, based upon scientific research and not on popular myth and misconception.”

More specifically, it helps — if possible — to give people time to think. “Strategies dealing with disasters and evacuation could take the time aspect into account. If you give individuals enough time, pro-social behavior” will appear.

But the wreck of the Titanic also indicates a darker side, Torgler adds. “Social power will also emerge in a stronger manner.”

– David J. Tenenbaum

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Terry Devitt, editor; Steve Furay, project assistant; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David J. Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive