Being selfish can save lives – research showed that rushing to save others may increase the fatalities

We are taught to be selfless as much as possible. In a dangerous situation we think we should take care of others before saving ourselves. However, this mentality has some issues, as scientists from the University of Waterloo have found. In fact, if one puts other in front of himself, it may increase the number of fatalities. How can it be?

If you are a regular traveller by planes, you have heard instructions to put your oxygen mask first before helping others. That is quite an important rule that cannot be overlooked. In this case if you are lacking oxygen you may struggle to evaluate situation and can skip putting on masks entirely. However, this does translate to all kind of life-and-death disaster situations involving groups of people as this new research has discovered.

Contrary to what people tend to believe, it is better to save yourself first in life-threatening situations. Image credit: Walter Siegmund via Wikimedia (CC BY 2.5)

Scientists created a computer model of a flooded subway station with 30 people stuck in it. They found that survival rates were much higher when stronger individuals got to safety first before trying to help others. In other words, sometimes it is better to look after yourself first and take care of other later. In computer model strong individuals were dying themselves because they were dragged down underwater when they tried saving weaker people first.

Interestingly, the subway station in computer program is an actual facility – three-level underground space in Kyoto, Japan. It is unlikely that it will ever happen, but it could flood from a nearby river. A variety of different people were modelled in the study, including elderly and children. Three different evacuation strategies were modelled: one in which people only worried about themselves; one in which people immediately worked together as a group; and one in which those capable of saving themselves reached a safe place before trying to save others using a rope. Unsurprisingly, the rope strategy actually proved to deliver the highest survival rates.

Scientists say that there is a difference between being brave and being reckless. You have to evaluate the situation and choose such a way to help people that you could save as many as possible. However, scientists also note that rope was crucial for the scenario and it should be underlined as well. Places that are passed by masses of people every day should have some basic equipment which helps people evacuate and save other, weaker individuals.

There is nothing wrong in being selfless person, trying to help others. But you have to recognize that you are not going to help anyone if you cannot save yourself.


Source: University of Waterloo

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