How people act within the chaotic and dangerous environment of a disaster is a long-standing line of inquiry in the field of psychology, and refining understanding of why people act as they do in difficult times may contribute to the prevention of unnecessary suffering as well as the efficient handling of dire circumstances. Examining the behavior of passengers aboard two of the twentieth century’s most famous shipwrecks, a study recently published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has suggested that the speed of the disaster has a great deal to do with how victims are likely to act.
Basing their data on the evacuation procedures along with the death and survival rates of passengers aboard the Titanic and the Lusitania, the researchers considered whether social mandates were respected or tossed aside as the threat of a sinking ship loomed in the minds of those who witnessed the events. The researchers noted that the Titanic, which took over three hours to sink, was a relatively slowly-paced disaster, while the Lusitania, which succumbed to its torpedo strike and sank within twenty minutes of impact, was a much more fast-paced affair.
The study found that on the Titanic, social expectations such as the priority of women, children, and first-class ticketholders were upheld, as people in these categories had a markedly better chance of surviving. Aboard the Lusitania, however, a sense of “every man for himself” seems to have prevailed, as gender and station mattered little compared to a prime age of sixteen to thirty five in terms of those who made it safely out of the ship and onto a lifeboat. The researchers have concluded that chivalry is greatly affected by the speed at which a disaster occurs, a finding that may have important implications for a wide range of industries.
© Copyright 2010 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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