Why Do Captains Abandon Ship?


Ever since the HMS Birkenhead wrecked in 1852, killing 450 people, the protocol of rescuing women and children first has been part of sealore. Almost as old, and equally entrenched, is the idea the captain is the last to leave a sinking ship. (Remember in "Titanic," when Captain Smith locks himself in the wheelhouse and goes down with the ship?)

So when Capt. Lee Joon-seok abandoned his sinking South Korean ferry with teenage passengers still on board, many of whom ultimately died, he faced immediate scrutiny. Lee is only the most recent captain faced with the choice between escape and heroism: Costa Crociere, Europe's largest cruise operator, now requires its captains to undergo psychological tests after one of its captains abandoned ship in a 2012 wreck that killed 32 people.

The U.S. Air Force is joining with leading universities to design next-gen rescue robots.

So what’s the psychological basis for making that choice?

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“It seems to me fairly obvious why a ship captain (or crew member) might abandon ship prematurely, leaving passengers to fend for themselves: overwhelming fear for his or her own life,” said Peter Sandman, a risk communication consultant.

The temptation, he said, is to chalk it up to panic. But that’s not quite accurate.

“Panic, properly defined, is limited to cases in which people act unwisely because of overwhelming fear,” he said. “People who are panicking lose their ability to think straight, so they do things they wouldn’t otherwise have done. When fearful people act in obviously self-defeating ways, that’s panic.  But when fearful people put their own survival ahead of the survival of others (even others they are responsible for), their behavior is selfish -- but it’s not irrational, and therefore not panic. The captain may or may not have felt panicky, but he abandoned his passengers, not his senses.”

Are some people simply hard-wired to be either heroes or cowards? Research in understanding behaviors in such situations is scant because mass emergencies are so rare, said Susan Krauss Whitbourne, a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. While some recent research suggests that we can be trained to become more selfless, most of it focuses on altruistic, not heroic, behavior.

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