As I am generally interested in “technological” disasters and write for an infrastructure blog, I always wonder about infrastructural disasters.
I recently read an interesting and somewhat non-tradition piece for an economics journal (although it does harken to the “Freakonomics” style of inquiry, if only it had a comparison case where the same set of underlying mechanisms operated):
Frey, Bruno S., David A. Savage, and Benno Torgler. 2011. “Behavior under Extreme Conditions: The Titanic Disaster.” Journal of Economic Perspectives, 25(1): 209–22.
The full-text article, which is currently complimentary, reviews how individuals behaved (based mainly on personal characteristics) during one of the “deadliest peacetime maritime disasters.” The abstract reads:
During the night of April 14, 1912, the RMS Titanic collided with an iceberg on her maiden voyage. Two hours and 40 minutes later she sank, resulting in the loss of 1,501 lives—more than two-thirds of her 2,207 passengers and crew. This remains one of the deadliest peacetime maritime disasters in history and by far the most famous. The disaster came as a great shock because the vessel was equipped with the most advanced technology at that time, had an experienced crew, and was thought to be practically “unsinkable” (although the belief that the ship had been widely believed to be truly unsinkable actually arose after the sinking, as explained in Howell, 1999). The Titanic’s fame was enhanced by the considerable number of fifi lms made about it: not including various made-for-television movies and series, the list would include Saved from the Titanic (1912), In Nacht und Eis (1912), Atlantic (1929), Titanic (1943 and 1953), A Night to Remember (1958), Raise the Titanic! (1980), and of course the 1997 Titanic, directed by James Cameron and starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. In 1985, a joint American–French expedition, led by Jean-Louis Michel and Dr. Robert Ballard, located the wreckage and collected approximately 6,000 artifacts, which were later shown in an exhibition that toured the world.
The results suggest when you compare the quick sink of the Lusitania (under 20 mins) to the show, gradual sink of the Titanic (over a 3 hour period), you learn something about the dynamics of self-interest under certain circumstances.
The comparison between the Titanic and the Lusitania suggests that when time is scarce, individual self-interested flight behavior predominates, while altruism and social norms and power through social status become more important if there is suffificient time for them to evolve.