Women And Children First? Sure, If You Give Me Time To Think About ItS

New studies find that, when it comes to quick-sinking ships, chivalry is dead: or at least, all the women who couldn't make it onto the lifeboat were:

This is incredibly interesting: researchers at the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia, have done a study in which they compare the behavior patterns of passengers on the Lusitania with that of those on the ill-fated Titanic three years earlier. On the Titanic, men were chivalrous and helpful and made a notable effort to help women and children onto the ship, while awaiting their inevitable deaths. When, in contrast, the Lusitania became a war casualty, it was quite literally every man for himself.

The reasons, say researchers, is that on the Titanic, the men had three hours to think about their actions. The Lusitania sank in 18 minutes, and, says one of them to the New York Times, "When you have to react very, very fast, human instincts are much faster than internalized social norms." The ships had a similar population and size, making them ideal comparison studies and making the results all the starker. As the Times summarizes it,

On the Titanic, the study found, children were 14.8 percent more likely to survive adults, while on the Lusitania they were 5.3 percent less likely to do so. And women on the Titanic were 53 percent more likely to survive than men, while on the Lusitania they were 1.1 percent less likely to do so.

As the New Scientist explains, given time "you can switch from adrenalin-driven self-preservation to conscience-driven self-sacrifice." Well, that or impose ythe social order: Fascinatingly, while First Class passengers fared better on the Titanic, in the free-for-all that was the Lusitania, those in steerage actually had a better survival rate.

Saving women and children, of course, was not merely an act of chivalry: there is an imperative at work there, too - at least once you get past fight-or-flight. Says the LA Times,

Psychologist Daniel Kruger of the University of Michigan thinks that the answer lies less in social norms and more in our evolutionary heritage. Human beings have a deep instinct to preserve our kind, he said, and that means "people are more likely to save those who have higher reproductive value, namely the young and women in child-bearing years."

One can't help thinking, too, that it wasn't merely the time to consider the "right thing" that motivated men on the Titanic: they also must have had time to consider how it would look, not just to posterity but to the other men waiting on deck while you leapt to safety; that's a level of peer pressure we can't even envision. And by the way, that would have been more than mere paranoia: Bruce Ismay, the White Star director who infamously gave himself a place in the last lifeboat while his crew and employees waited to go down on his faulty vessel, was, fairly or not, a notorious figure whose life and career were in shambles after he was branded a coward. (I just went with my dad to the really good Titanic show at the Discovery Center which, despite the presence of fake "boarding passes" and a recreation of the Titanic-immortalized main staircase for photo purposes, was in fact completely un-cheesy, and let me tell you: the young people who worked there, perhaps because they were surrounded by the story every day, were still really angry about Bruce Ismay.) Being That Guy forever is something of a deal with the devil.

While some challenge the universality of the study's application, it can't help but make one wonder at - and appreciate - those stories of heroism we hear about: the boss who returned to the second tower to make sure a blind employee got down safely or, more recently, the level of professionalism that led Captain Sullenberger to make not one but two walk-throughs of his plane's cabin to make sure every passenger was out safe (as chronicled in the TV documentary Brace for Impact.) While no one can wonder at survival instincts, the ability to overcome it is pretty amazing.


How The Men Reacted As The Titanic And Lusitania Went Under
(New York Times)
Women And Children First? How Long Have You Got? [New Scientist]
Women And Children First? Maybe
[LA Times]
MR. BRUCE ISMAY (obit) [TimesUK via Encyclopedia Titanica)