#48: The Science of Chivalry

By Andrew Moseman|Thursday, December 16, 2010

In some disasters it’s every man for himself. In others it’s women and children first. What determines whether panic or order prevails? Time, says Benno Torgler, an economist at Queensland University of Technology in Australia, who studied century-old nautical disasters for clues.

The Titanic sank in 1912, the Lusitania three years later. The passengers were remarkably similar in age, gender, and percentage of survivors, Torgler says. But when he analyzed who survived, the differences jumped off the page. Women on the Titanic were 50 percent more likely to escape the disaster than men, and children had a 15 percent better chance than adults. On the Lusitania, though, people between 16 and 35 had the best odds. “Survival of the fittest was much stronger on the Lusitania,” says Torgler, who published his findings in March.

The crucial difference was time. The Lusitania sank in 18 minutes, but it took the Titanic two hours and 40 minutes to succumb to the sea, leaving time for social norms to triumph over selfishness.

Now Torgler is on the hunt for modern catastrophes he can compare in the same way to further unlock the science of chivalry. “How long does it take for this pro-social behavior to emerge?” he asks. “That’s a question for neuroscience.”

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