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Sinking Ships Imply Altruism Takes Time

A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences looked at the survival rates of men, woman and children from the Titanic and the Lusitania, and found more men stayed alive when the ship went down fast, and panic overtook chivalry. Karen Hopkin reports

When an ocean liner starts taking on water, what governs whether it’s “women and children first” or “every man for himself”? According to a report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [see: http://bit.ly/clUjR2, lead author Benno Torgler], men’s altruistic versus self-serving behavior depends on how quickly the ship sinks.

On April 14th, 1912, the Titanic hit an iceberg and took nearly three hours to slip beneath the waves. Some 1,500 people perished. And the survivors tended to be female or young. The Titanic’s women were over 50 percent more likely to make it than were the males, and children had a 15 percent better chance of being rescued than adults.

But kids were not as lucky on the Lusitania, which three years later sank just 18 minutes after being hit by a German torpedo. In this situation it truly was survival of the fittest, with healthy young males being the most likely to live to tell the tale.

While passengers on the Lusitania panicked and scrambled for survival, scientists say that those on the Titanic had enough time to override their animal survival instincts and do the chivalrous thing.

—Karen Hopkin

[The above text is an exact transcript of this podcast.]

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