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The Captain Who Fell into the Lifeboat

By Zeno Franco and Matt Langdon | January 20, 2012 | 12 comments

What the Costa Concordia disaster reveals about heroism—and how we can train ourselves to be heroes.

It is a heroic tradition as old as the Sea itself—in a crisis, the captain is the last person to leave the ship. The privilege of being the master of a vessel also comes with the “burden of command”—the responsibility for every soul aboard. 

The term “hero” is overused in today’s media-driven culture and has been equated with everything from being a celebrity to just being a good person. Heroism is different than altruism because it always involves accepting some form of risk in order to uphold a noble cause.  In prior research we have noted that these risks can be broken down into “physical peril” or “social sacrifice.” Further, heroes who accept these risks may be either “duty bound”—soldiers, police officers, or a ship’s captain—or “everyday heroes,” the average person who performs in an extraordinary way when faced with a crisis.

Il Fatto Quotidiano

Yet on January 13th, Captain Francesco Schettino of the Costa Concordia cruise ship, with 3,000 passengers and 1,000 crew, did the opposite of what we expect of someone in his role. Instead of trying to heroically recover from an error in judgment (as did the Captain of the Titanic) after the ship was crippled, Schettino left his post before the rescue efforts were even underway.

An article one of us (Zeno Franco) wrote with Philip Zimbardo, “The Banality of Heroism,” advanced five key features of heroism:

  • Developing a “discontinuity detector”—that is to say becoming more mindful of situations in which conflicting information is present;
  • Being willing to accept some interpersonal conflict—heroic decisions are often controversial;
  • Remaining aware of a more distant time horizon and what the consequences of our actions in this particular moment may mean in the future;
  • Resisting the urge to rationalize inaction and to justify evil deeds as somehow righteous; and
  • Learning to control fear—heroism is not the absence of fear, but the ability to act despite it.

Captain Schettino appears to have failed in all five of these areas, leaving a cruise liner full of people in clear danger and without an obvious leader. His example allows us to examine the fine line between becoming a hero, bystander, villain or fool.

First, about 40 minutes elapsed between the hull breech and the order to abandon ship. Although it is speculation at this point, this suggests that the captain and crew did not take the initial accident seriously enough in the first few minutes after the crash—their “discontinuity detectors” did not register the severity of the situation quickly enough to mount an effective response.

The second area of heroism deals primarily with “social sacrifice.” The captain apparently allowed the ship to come dangerously close to shore so that a crew member, possibly a friend, could wave to their family on the coast. There are also indications that the delay in declaring an emergency aboard the vessel may have resulted from pressure from the captain’s supervisors. Each of those interactions involved Schettino weighing the importance of a social relationship rather than focusing on the more immediate danger.

Third, transcribed recordings of the captain’s conversations with rescue personnel suggest that he was more worried about immediate concerns than longer term consequences. It appears that he did not consider the long term impact of his actions (or inaction), the profound human cost of this decision, the impact the event will have for his own reputation and career, the financial burden for the owner of the ship, and the environmental consequences for the area around Giglio Island.

Fourth, the captain has claimed that he averted an even greater disaster by maneuvering the ship into shallower waters after the accident occurred. Moreover, people from his hometown are asserting that he is a hero for this attempt to get the ship closer to shore to facilitate the rescue of passengers. These self-justifying statements often start during the crisis event itself, and can be fairly small initially, but turn into a cascade of decisions and justifications that make it impossible for a leader to consider alternatives.

Fifth, heroes must be able to act in spite of their fear. Being aboard a sinking ship is a scary prospect for anyone. Yet, the passengers aboard the Costa Concordia needed leadership. At its most dramatic, the role of the captain is to provide steady, unflinching leadership in the face of crisis. The captain’s actions influence the willingness of the crew to maintain or abandon their posts; it is the captain’s words that have the power to create resolve and calm amongst unprepared passengers: “This is your captain speaking…” Instead, Captain Schettino claimed that he accidentally fell into a lifeboat!

In contrast to Schettino’s failure to be a duty-bound hero, there were numerous examples of everyday heroism on display. Giuseppe Girolamo, a drummer aboard the ship who is currently missing, was witnessed giving up his spot on a life raft to a child. Individuals and groups of people used their own bodies to form human ladders to allow others to escape, exhibiting individual and shared bravery. And, as is the case in all similar events in history, we will never know about the heroic struggles of some of those who were lost in this event.

It is easy for us as outside commentators to assume we understand what occurred aboard the Costa Concordia a few days ago. Reality is always more complex than what we can glean from a few news reports. Our reflection on these events is not intended to join the choir condemning the actions or inaction of Captain Schettino. None of us know how we would react in a true crisis. However, events such as these allows us to reflect on our own readiness and think about how we can train our imaginations for heroism.

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About The Author

Zeno Franco, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the department of family & community medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin. He studies the social psychology of heroic action and disaster management. He recently published an article differentiating heroism and altruism with Dr. Philip Zimbardo, and is a research adviser for the Heroic Imagination Project. Matt Langdon created the Hero Construction Company to build heroes in schools around the world. He creates training programs that prepare students for acts of heroism, large or small. He is the author of the soon-to-be-published “Hero Handbook” and also sits on the advisory council of the Heroic Imagination Project.

  

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A thought provoking article that not only asks us to
reflect on heroism, but also reminds us that we need to
be careful of judgment because we don’t really know how
we will react when we are called to be heroic. We can
only hope that our true selves are as selfless and
courageous as those heroes that were present as the ship
went down.  Thanks for keeping me thinking.

Mary-France | 10:18 am, January 20, 2012 | Link

 

This article got me thinking!

I have to ask myself the question…could I have
stayed on board and risked myself to help others?
Would I have?

I would like to think I would. As a former lifeguard
and teacher, I have been entrusted with the safety
of others before. I have been trained to react and
respond in times of stress and danger. I know I
would have reacted without hesitation while at
work to act heroically, to save my swimmers, to
protect my students. I would be duty-bound I
suppose.

But on vacation? On a cruise ship? Would my brain
have worked the same way? That is perhaps what
scares me the most, not the failure of the duty-
bound captain and crew to be heroic, but that
more stories of “everyday heroes” have not
emerged. Are we that easily swayed to forget any
heroic stirrings we may have felt before in a
moment of true danger? Surely there were doctors
and teachers and firefighters, and all sorts of
duty-bound heroes on board. Does being off duty
make that big of a difference in how a person
responds?

Maybe the stories will be told as the details of this
crash continue to unfold, but it makes me think
that we need more heroes in the world. We need
more dialogue, about what we can do to make
things better in the future. I am not talking cruise
line muster drills and safety training here. I am
talking hero training. A society that puts more
value on protecting human life, or even on small
heroic acts, than they do the almighty dollar.

Heather K. | 11:57 am, January 20, 2012 | Link

 

Great article, very thought provoking. I agree that is very difficult to project how any of us would act. The idea of preparing yourself ahead of time with heroic training is very intriguing, I am looking forward to reading more on this.

K Bennett | 5:44 pm, January 20, 2012 | Link

 

Great article, I’m planning on using it in the classroom. 
It will be a great English conversation starter, as the
kids are already talking about the South Korean
couple who was rescued days after the accident.

It does make you think what you actually do in an
emergency situation.  It’s very easy to quickly judge
someone else.

T. Raetzke | 7:49 pm, January 20, 2012 | Link

 

Really great article with very interesting information.. thanks

Tom | 1:15 pm, January 21, 2012 | Link

 

This makes you think now doesn’t it?  Everyone has
been quick to condemn the captain of this ship.

I believe that his “duty bound” role and his actions
have led us to this conclusion.  If he had been a
cook aboard ship, then no one would have batted
an eye at him “falling into a lifeboat”

It was his moment to display the heroic attributes
that so many Captains have displayed in the face
of adversity.  He failed to live up to the
expectations and responsibilities of his position,
why?  Because he is human and none of us could
ever know how we would react in such
circumstances until they present themselves.

Put yourself in that position..can you honestly say
you would not have reacted the same way??  It
bears a thought doesn’t it.

N. Allmark | 8:47 pm, January 21, 2012 | Link

 

Thanks for all of your comments.

As you’ve pointed out, this event helps us see what
ordinary people are capable of, both positive and
negative.

By reading stories of heroism, we prepare ourselves for
future heroism. Keep reading. And keep thinking.

Matt Langdon | 8:27 pm, January 23, 2012 | Link

 

You’ve got to feel a bit sorry for this guy. Criminals all over the world commit heinous deeds without getting their faces splattered on newspapers everywhere. Besides the narcissistic use of “hero”, the media does a disservice when this kind of unapologetic speculation is rampant before a trial.

I agree with one person who said the core problem seems to be about training. Assuming someone is a good person, you still have to be prepared even on good days to face severe danger.

This is why I find those “trolley problem” or “who would you save if a bear was going to attack, the baby or the pet” ethical questions so silly; you assume I won’t be hauling butt in the other direction to save myself!

Seriously though, I’ve worked with wild animals and I’ve been in a few emergency situations. The key is pre-preparation. You must walk into work every day asking yourself if you’re ready to be severely injured or killed. On a nice, sunny day it’s hard to imagine. But things change very very fast. If you want to be that renegade surgeon, you’d better be the best. If you want to be Steve Irwin, be prepared for some freak accidents especially if you’re entering foreign territory.

Em | 1:31 pm, January 25, 2012 | Link

 

I find it regrettable that the author chose to focus on the Costa Concorcdia situation, as opposed to using that as introduction to the article.  Although it appears that Captain Schettino acted very badly the matter remains unresolved and until it is resolved I am always troubled by this sort of article which only enchances the penchant for finding blame that Ifind in prevalent in society.

In saying this I must acknowledge that I spent many years representing persons accused of crimes, some of whom were not guilty.  I also have experienced combat and other signifcant crisis situations in my lifetime.

I would have prefered that the author acknowledge that the Costa Concordia situation raises the hero/villian dichotomy and then gone on to present the information regarding heroism utilizing other fully documented scenarios.

Joel Rubin | 3:10 pm, January 26, 2012 | Link

 

That poor captain, and everybody condemns him. We shouldn’t, cause we all could have been in his situation? No! I am not a captain of a ship. If I do something wrong there’s no human casualities involved. We do and we should expect a supreme performance from people that drive with thousands of people across the sea. The only thing that is between the people and death is the ship and it’s crew. Schettino failed. Wrong profession.

Rod Green | 5:03 am, January 27, 2012 | Link

 

None of thsoe things go through your head when you are trying to save someone, the thought that you might be risking your own life, none of that. You just think someone needs help and you jump in before you have a chance to think.

E.L. | 7:26 am, January 27, 2012 | Link

 

The captain was a miserable coward and I hope he’s convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison. He’s an embarrassment to Italians, to the cruise industry and to sea captains.

Captain Schettino’s behavior was so disgraceful on all counts that the only possible silver lining is no one would want to be like him.

Eileen Klees | 7:33 pm, January 29, 2012 | Link

 
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