Women and children not always first

A study finds that prevailing social norms disappear when time is of the essence

Published March 2, 2010 7:30PM (EST)

The tale of the Titanic is often told as a means of affirming altruism: As the ship sank in 1912, the captain famously issued the maritime edict "women and children first." We hold up this famous example of selfless concern for the younger and weaker among us as an example of how we're supposed to behave during an emergency -- but things don't always play out that way, now do they? A new study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, offers an explanation as to why: Time.

The Titanic took three hours to sink. As crises go, that's quite a long time -- long enough to make for a more than three-hour-long Hollywood epic. For the most part, it didn't force the passengers to make split-second decisions about their own survival. I mean, the band played on, for chrissake. Three years later, though, when the Lusitania sank off Ireland, a very different scenario played out: It took just 18 minutes for the ship to go down, and it was every man for himself. The 639 survivors were largely healthy young men and women who were best able to fend for themselves.

In comparing these two shipwrecks, Benno Torgler of Australia's Queensland University of Technology concluded: "When you have to react very, very fast, human instincts are much faster than internalized social norms." Those romantic notions of heroism and sacrifice go out the window -- or down with the ship, as it were.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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