Shipwreck Located with…Psychology?

In November 1941, Australia’s HMAS Sydney engaged Germany’s HSK Kormoran. The ensuing battle sent both ships plummeting to the bottom of the Indian Ocean. After decades of fruitless searching, two unlikely scholars stepped into the picture. How did cognitive psychologists unravel one of the great unsolved mysteries of World War II?

Where did the HMAS Sydney and HSK Kormoran Sink?

None of the 645 Australians serving aboard the HMAS Sydney survived the battle. In contrast, 317 Germans managed to stay afloat until they were picked up by other Australian ships. The Australian military, eager to locate the wrecks, began questioning the captives about the HMAS Sydney. But the Germans seemed confused as to exactly where the two ships had sank.

“…About 70 Germans did come up with a location. But those locations, taken together, didn’t make much sense – the positions were spread out, smeared over hundreds of miles. One survivor even placed the sinking almost halfway to Antarctica.” ~ Alix Spiegel, How Psychology Solved a WWII Shipwreck Mystery, NPR

The Australian military assumed that the captives were lying. Thus, most of the testimony was ignored. Decades of searching would follow, with nothing to show for it.

Using Psychology to find a Shipwreck?

In the 1990s, cognitive psychologists Kim Kirsner and John Dunn decided to throw their collective hat into the ring. After reviewing the testimony, they realized that the German accounts contained more truth than most realized.

“We wanted to make the case – show that the characteristics of these reports were the right kind of characteristics. That is, that the inconsistencies in the reports were precisely the kind of inconsistencies that occur naturally from failures of memory and the vagaries of transmitting information from person to person.” ~ John Dunn

Experiments performed during the 1930s by psychologist Sir Frederic Bartlett showed that people have a tendency to make consistent, predictable mistakes when recalling the past or passing on stories. For example, they will recall a confusing story differently so that it makes more sense to them.

Kirsner and Dunn subjected the German accounts to pattern analysis and found that they looked quite similar to Bartlett’s experimental data. This discovery indicated that the Germans were telling the truth. Most likely, only a few surviving officers knew the ship’s exact location at the time of the sinking. That information “probably spread to the other surviving crew members during and after their rescue,” leading to the confusing data set.

Next, Kirsner and Dunn used the various accounts to suggest a probable location for the two shipwrecks. By 2004, they handed over their findings – along with their guess at the location – to the “Finding Sydney Foundation. So, how close did they come to pinpointing the shipwrecks?

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

In 2008, David Mearns used his own methodology to locate the shipwreck of the HSK Kormoran. Amazingly enough, it was just 2.7 nautical miles from Kirsner’s and Dunn’s predicted location. The HMAS Sydney was discovered a short distance away.

Now, of course, Kirsner and Dunn didn’t actually find the ship nor was their expertise used to locate it. Mearns and his team deserve all the credit in that respect. However, he did benefit from a similar methodology in which a study of primary sources led him to the conclusion that the Germans had been telling the truth.

Regardless, this example shows that cognitive psychology can be a powerful tool to weed through disparate memories and conflicting stories. Maybe, someday soon, it can be used to answer other unsolved mysteries of history.