Woman and Children First

Researchers have found that more women and children were saved on the Titanic, which sank in 1912, than on the Lusitania, torpedoed three years later.  They attribute the difference to time:  the Lusitania went down in 18 minutes, while the Titanic took 3 hours.

According to one author of the study: “When you have to react very, very fast, human instincts are much faster than internalized social norms.” (See, “How the Men Reacted as the Titanic and Lusitania Went Under.”)  The study of the unconscious offers a somewhat better explanation.

Faced with danger, the brain automatically searches for safety.  No doubt this is part of our evolutionary heritage.  When our ancestors were attacked by animals, they didn’t stop to think about running;  they ran.  If they were being stalked, they immediately froze to avoid detection.  We still do the same.  Our emotional unconscious, by-passing the pre-frontal cortex, stimulates adrenaline directly and enacts the strategies that help us survive.

But if are not forced to act right away, we can reflect on alternatives and develop better responses.  We can think about others.  We can discuss alternative strategies.  We can cooperate.  This is the great benefit of consciousness, developed as our species evolved.

Similarly, if we are anxious and automatically reach for a cigarette or a drink to calm ourselves, we could give ourselves the time to become more aware of this tendency and substitute another one.  A bit more reflection allows consciousness to come up with a different response.

The researcher was by no means wrong to suggest the importance of time.  But if we take into account the role of the unconscious in our behavior, we have a better idea than “instincts” to help us understand why time is useful, and what we can do with it.