A Psychological Look at Disaster Behavior

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.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • cathy f

    cathy f

    March 5th, 2010 at 10:14 AM

    I would like to think that when disaster strikes people are still looking out for one another, but I would think that it probably does fall right along the lines of how quickly the event is taking place. When things happen more slowly you would feel like there is way more time to be kind to others and to take care of other people. But if the proverbial ship is sinking in ten minutes, then I can definitely see how that every man for himself mentality would sink in and you hwould only try to protect you and yours. I would probably behave in exactly the same way.

  • FR


    March 6th, 2010 at 2:47 AM

    sometimes in a difficult situation,people do tend to do things that they would regret later…its not like they have put a thought in it, they do things in the spur of the moment and then think that they could have conducted themselves different for a better result.

  • pauline


    March 6th, 2010 at 11:05 AM

    Ashamed to say it but if there is a disaster and I am in the middle of it I know that I would be trying to save myself and my family. I would want to help others too along the way but I am not sure how I would react in that situation. I think that your primal instincts are going to be save those that you know first because those are the people whom you love and care for so much. Am I crazy- I can’t be the only person who feels this way. I think that writing this makes me sound like a bad person and I don’t think I am but I do think that that would be the reality of my personal situation if I were ever to have to face that.

  • Steadman


    March 8th, 2010 at 1:37 PM

    Makes me sad to recognize as the truth that when times are tough pretty much all of us are gonna put ourselves and our own needs ahead of those of others.

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