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Just a few minutes more thinking time seems to mean people do the honourable thing, helping others before themselves.
But if they have no time to consider, then "survival of the fittest" thoughts dominate, researchers have concluded.
The findings, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, came from a study of the sinking of two British ocean going liners in the early 20th century and their survivors.
In the case of the Titanic, which took just under three hours to sink, the "women and children first" rule was famously followed.
Women, children and those accompanying a child therefore made up the majority of the survivors. When time was short, as in the sinking of the Lusitania, order broke down and selfish "everyman for himself" attitudes took over.
As a result those aged 16 to 35 – the fittest – survived the sinking which took just 18 minutes. Dr Benno Torgler, of Queensland University of Technology, and colleagues said males and females aged 16 to 35 had a 7.9 per cent and 10.4 per cent higher chances of survival on the Lusitania respectively.
In contrast, on the Titanic young females, especially those with children, had a higher probability of surviving (48.3 per cent) whereas there male counterparts were less likely to live.
The researchers said: "The social norm of "women and children first" was deferred to only on the Titanic.
"This social norm was enforced by the crew members and considered acceptable by the passengers – otherwise the passengers could have easily revolted against such a protocol.
"In both disasters the captains issued orders to their officers and crew to follow the social norm of "women and children first".
"These orders were successfully carried out on the Titanic but not on the Lusitania due to time constraints and problems launching the lifeboats."
A higher survival rate could be a result not only of the struggle for a place on a lifeboat but also of inefficient launching of lifeboats on the Lusitania, so individuals who were strong enough to stay in the boats or get back in after falling out were likelier to live.
The researchers said: "Because the Lusitania sank in under 18 minutes we would expect a stronger competition for survival of the fittest on that ship than on the Titanic.
People in their prime are expected to have higher survival probabilities.
"In the environment of the Titanic social norms were enforced more often and there was also a higher willingness among males to surrender a seat on a lifeboat."
The authors propose time pressure may crucially influence us in extreme survival situations with short-run flight instincts dominating initial reactions which are then overridden by pro-social behaviours.
They said: "Our analysis suggests the adoption of a specific behaviour might depend on time as a factor – although time may not be the only factor at work.
"Nonetheless it seems on the more slowly sinking Titanic prosocial behaviour predominated in a stronger manner whereas more selfish conduct prevailed on the rapidly sinking Lusitania."
Up to 1,517 people died after the Titanic struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic on 15 April 1912 while 1,198 lost their lives on the Lusitania which had almost reached Liverpool from New York when it was hit by a German torpedo on 7 May 1915.