Human Behavior on a Sinking Ship

We won’t know for some time exactly what went wrong on the Costa Concordia off the coast of Tuscany a few days ago. But already, the survivor reports contain some clues as to what may have gone wrong with the evacuation.

From the BBC:

“We told the guests everything was OK and under control and we tried to stop them panicking,” cabin steward Deodato Ordona recalled.

It was about an hour before a general emergency was announced, he said.

Then the ship rolled again, now listing to the right, and the captain ordered the ship to be abandoned.

From the Daily Mail:

...But although it soon became clear that the problem was far worse, passengers continued to be told for a good 45 minutes that there was a simple technical problem. Even when the situation became clearer crew members delayed lowering the lifeboats even though the ship was listing badly. ‘We had to scream at the controllers to release the boats from the side,’ said Mike van Dijk, a 54-year-old from Pretoria, South Africa. ‘We were standing in the corridors and they weren’t allowing us to get on to the boats. It was a scramble, an absolute scramble.’ Robert Elcombe, 50, from Colchester but who now lives in Australia, said he and his wife Tracy got into a life boat – but were ordered out again when staff said it was ‘only a generator problem’ that could be fixed.

In almost every disaster, predictable human distortions slow down the response. This is normal—which is not the same thing as inevitable.

The first predictable phase is a period of profound denial—a disbelief that the ship could really be sinking (or the plane could really be crashing or the hurricane could really be barreling towards you). The brain works according to pattern recognition, so it fits whatever is happening into scripts for what has happened before. It usually takes a surprisingly long time to accept that something terrible has happened.

The second behavioral threat is the fear of panic. People—especially people in charge—fear the crowd, sometimes more than they fear plunging into the cold sea. They do this even though most people do not panic in most disasters. They are frightened, and they try to escape death—but widespread anti-social behavior rarely happens. The bigger problem, time and again, is the fear of panic—which causes officials to withhold vital information.

Both of these tendencies can be overcome with realistic and smart training that includes the passengers and the crew. The research on this—especially from plane disasters—is very clear and reassuring. But if that kind of training doesn’t happen (and too often, it does not, for all sorts of reasons), then you can be sure that things will slip quickly from bad to tragic, as minutes are lost and people are left without information—the one thing they need more than anything else.

GeneralAmanda Ripley