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Time crunch fuels 'me-first' survival instinct: Study

It was ‘every man for himself’ aboard the Lusitania, which sank minutes after it was hit by a torpedo in 1915, killing 1,200 passengers.

The Canadian Navy Heritage Project

The chivalrous seafaring tradition of "women and children first" when disaster strikes comes with an unspoken caveat - "if there's time."

New research comparing two legendary nautical tragedies has found that time is a key factor in deciding whether altruistic social conventions trump self-interested survival instincts. Specifically, passengers who have less time are more likely to be ruled by panic and competition for survival.

Women, children and first-class passengers were significantly more likely to survive the sinking of the Titanic than that of the Lusitania, in which 16- to 35-year-olds had the highest rates of survival, according to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The difference was that the Titanic sank in just over 2½ hours, while the Lusitania took just 18 minutes.

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"Even though the two vessels and the composition of their passengers were quite similar, the behaviour of the individuals on board was dramatically different," says Benno Torgler, study author and professor of economics at Australia's Queensland University of Technology.

The study sheds thought-provoking light on the response to life-or-death situations. But it also provides insights that could help improve emergency and disaster plans to help maximize altruistic behaviour.

Many people, including social scientists, have long assumed that selfish "me first" attitudes tend to rule when people are faced with the immediate prospect of death, Prof. Torgler says. This study, however, demonstrates that individuals are surprisingly willing to help their fellow citizens, even if it means their own death, provided the circumstances are right.

Whereas Lusitania passengers had mere minutes to respond to their situation, the Titanic sank slowly, meaning "there was time for socially determined behavioural patterns to re-emerge," the study says.

Instead of the every-man-for-himself scramble on the Lusitania for limited lifeboat space, a comprehensive examination indicates young men and many others on the Titanic likely stepped aside to ensure the survival of children and young women, Prof. Torgler says.

More recent events may bolster the study's theory that people are naturally inclined to help others during emergencies, and that those instincts will emerge if given the time.

One of the most notable recent examples is the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack, during which passengers fought hijackers for control of a plane, which crashed in a field and preventing the craft from being used to hit another building. Countless emergency personnel and ordinary citizens also risked their lives that day to save people from the World Trade Center.

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"There is that positive bright side in human behaviour," says Scott Schieman, a sociology professor at the University of Toronto who studies the connection between stress and health. "It's an interesting idea: To what extent people are willing to really reach out and help other people." Prof. Schieman says one of the motivating factors that may push people to aid others during emergencies, even to their own detriment, is that doing something useful could serve as a coping mechanism.

The researchers compared the two shipwrecks because they shared several key elements: both had a similar shortage of lifeboats and survival rate; a comparable crew-to-passenger ratio; similar demographics and socioeconomic structures; and they sank three years apart.

The Titanic sank in 1912 after hitting an iceberg, killing 1,517 people out of more than 2,200 on board. The Lusitania sank in 1915 after being hit by a torpedo from a German U-boat, killing about 1,200 out of nearly 2,000 on board.

Nearly a century later, the divergent events that unfolded on each sinking ship hold important lessons that could apply to disaster planning today, Prof. Torgler says. He believes that giving people as much time as possible to register and respond to events, such as evacuations, could significantly increase the likelihood they will work together instead of panicking in a fight-or-flight race to survival.

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About the Author

Carly Weeks has been a journalist with The Globe and Mail since 2007.  She has reported on everything from federal politics to the high levels of sodium in the Canadian diet. More

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