Near Is Selfish

If the ship is sinking, do you save yourself or risk your life to save others? The answer, it seems, depends on how long the sinking takes. If there’s enough time, you can switch from adrenalin-driven self-preservation to conscience-driven self-sacrifice.

The insights come from a new comparison of survival data from the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 with the loss of 1517 lives out of 2207, and the fateful torpedoing of the Lusitania three years later, which killed 1198 passengers out of 1949.

The main difference between the two sinkings was time: it took 2 hours and 40 minutes for the Titanic to go down, while the Lusitania sank in just 18 minutes. The result: a huge difference in survivor profiles.

On the Lusitania, survival favoured able-bodied men aged between 16 and 35, … On the Titanic, in contrast, the same group of men were … more likely to die. … Children were 30.9 per cent more likely to survive on the Titanic, compared with passengers over 35, while on the Lusitania children had no better survival chance. …

Strikingly, women of all ages on the Titanic had a probability of survival 53 per cent higher than for men, compared with an 11 per cent higher chance of dying on the Lusitania. … First-class passengers on the Titanic had huge survival advantages non-existent on the Lusitania.

More here.   Yet more support for the thesis that far mode is more for social image, near mode more for personal gain.

Added 14Apr2012: These results don’t generalize to a larger dataset:

A new … paper … looked at 18 peace-time shipwrecks. … Women had a lower chance of survival in 11 out of 18 instances. Only on two ships was it an advantage to be a woman: on the Birkenhead in 1852 and on the Titanic. The best odds of survival on average were, somewhat surprisingly, those of the crew, followed by none other than the captain. Children were worst off

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  • cournot

    Do we know if the Titanic also had more time for leaders/officers to emerge to push people into Far Mode? Or is far mode more likely just because of having more time? It would be good to know if this was a decentralized shift to/from Far Mode or merely a result of a few leaders in Far Mode being able to shame the majority.

  • James Babcock

    I don’t see a connection to near-far here. Time available is not a suitable proxy for mode of thought used, because there are selection effects that aren’t mediated by thought at all – the Lusitania selected for getting to lifeboats in time, ie running speed, while the Titanic selected for getting limited spots on them, ie status.

    • Buck Farmer

      Good point.

  • bruce

    People on the Titanic didn’t really believe in the danger till- well.

  • http://www.johnson.cornell.edu/faculty/profiles/bl Robert Bloomfield

    Hmmm…I was with you up until the remark about “social image.” An alternative hypothesis is that people in the early 20th centure held a sincere belief that saving women and children is the right thing to do, and they do so if they aren’t in a panic.

    • Tyrrell McAllister

      That’s not an alternative to Robin’s explanation. Robin is purporting to give a deeper explanation–one that acounts for *why* people felt that way.

    • Buck Farmer

      Could be that they are rational utilitarian maximizers that value every human life but value the lives of women and children more…

      …the time difference just shifted the budget constraint so that high total utility could be achieved by saving as many as could arrive on time (selecting for athleticism) versus saving those that are preferred (which requires time-costly sorting).

  • Nanonymous

    Or maybe there is no deep psychological mystery here. Lots of survivors from Lusitania were pulled out of the water or were in the water before they managed to get into boats. I think these circumstances favour men.

  • Miranda

    “If there’s enough time, you can switch from adrenalin-driven self-preservation to conscience-driven self-sacrifice.”

    How about a third choice, conscience-driven self-preservation?

    For instance, if I’m a single mother who’s raising three children by herself (and I’m on the ship while my kids are at home), I might save myself, not because of adrenalin-driven self-preservation, but because of conscience-driven self- (and family-) preservation.

  • Eric Falkenstein

    One should note that on the Titanic, where first class men had higher survivor rates than third class men, it was still less than any group of women or children. One would think, seeing the movie, that class explained most of the survivorship, but instead it was gender and age.

  • http://www.churchofrationality.blogspot.com LemmusLemmus

    n=2

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  • Bram

    I wonder if location was another factor.

    Given the Titantic’s location – far out in the Atlantic in icy water – men would have recognized the futility of jumping overboard.

    The Lusitania, on the other hand, went down in May only 8 miles from Ireland. Under these conditions, I would take my chances in the water and put some distance between myself and ship before it went down in the hope of swimming to land or getting pulled out of the water by the locals. Swimming for shore is a strategy that would certainly favor strong young men.

  • http://amaroq.org Amaroq

    Or maybe it wasn’t some biological element, and was instead the philosophy implicitly held by a bunch of people who were all raised in an altruistic society.

    The decision to help save others isn’t necessarily a selfish one either. There are selfish justifications to help strangers in an emergency. All strangers are potentially valuable to you, due to the nature of humans and what they’re capable of. Whether the action was selfish or selfless depends on how much risk you put yourself in, and how important the people were to you that you were saving.

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    I just added to this post.