Titanic study: It takes time to do the right thing

Researchers learn about social norms in crises by comparing the Titanic and Lusitania sinkings

Gallantry ruled on the day the Titanic went down. 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.

CHIVALRY SURVIVED When the Titanic sank, women and children were more likely to make it to safety. Here, the last lifeboat arrives at the rescue ship Carpathia. National Archives

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 to be published online this week 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.

Scientists led by economist Benno Torgler of Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia, examined the ships’ survival records to see how humans act in extreme situations.

“The key is time. This is really a crucial finding,” Torgler says. In the melee of rapid, stressful situations, an “every man for himself” mentality may have prevailed. That would explain why young, healthy 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 University. “Some of these dramatic experiments we can’t do, so we look for historical analogs. 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 off the boats. The Titanic and the Lusitania carried similar numbers and types of passengers, making the two ships “similar to a field experiment,” Torgler says.

Most data on social behavior under stressful conditions are from self-reported survey answers or watered-down lab simulations, Torgler says. “The strength of analyzing people in real situations is that their true preferences are revealed,” he says.

The researchers combed through historical accounts and records from the Titanic and Lusitania and analyzed which passengers survived on the basis of sex, age and cabin class. Women aboard the Titanic were over 50 percent more likely to survive than males, but women had no advantage on the fast-sinking Lusitania, the team found. On the Titanic, males between the ages of 16 and 35 were almost 7 percent less likely to survive than everyone else, but on the Lusitania, young males were almost 8 percent more likely to survive. On the Titanic, children were 31 percent more likely to make it into a lifeboat, but aboard the Lusitania, children fared slightly worse than other passengers, the team found.

What’s more, on the Titanic, first-class passengers were about 44 percent more likely than other passengers to survive. But on the Lusitania, a first-class ticket didn’t confer any advantages, the team reports. Wealthy passengers had more time to exert their influence as the Titanic sank by bargaining themselves into lifeboats, Torgler hypothesizes.   

Longer time frames such as the nearly three hours it took for the Titanic to sink allow social norms and order to emerge, the researchers hypothesize. The team is studying records from other historical episodes, such as mountaineering accidents and the September 11 attacks, to test the influence of time on social behavior.

The study’s findings are persuasive, Camerer says. “Under extreme time pressures, it’s everybody for themselves. Coordinating and respecting norms takes time,” he says. “When people have time to deliberate, you see pro-social behavior.”

Laura Sanders

Laura Sanders is the neuroscience writer. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.

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