How to find a long-lost sunken battleship — using psychology

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NPR's Alix Spiegel has written a must-read article about how a team of cognitive psychologists solved a WWII shipwreck mystery.

Spiegel writes:

In November 1941, two ships crossed paths off the coast of Australia. One was the German raider HSK Kormoran. The other: an Australian warship called the HMAS Sydney [pictured up top]. Guns were fired, the ships were damaged, and both sank to the bottom of the ocean.

The loss of the Sydney in World War II was a national tragedy for the Australians, particularly because none of the 645 men onboard survived. In the years that followed, there was intense interest in finding the wrecks, particularly the wreck of the Sydney. The idea was that doing this might give the families of the lost sailors some measure of peace, a sense of closure and certainty.

The problem was that the only witnesses to the battle and the sinking were about 300 German sailors who had abandoned their ship after it had been hit. They were eventually picked up by the Australian military.


Interrogation techniques ultimately proved useless, and both ships remained undiscovered for decades. That is until psychologists Kim Kirsner and John Dunn came onto the scene in the 1990's to work some scientific magic. By comparing the reports made by German survivors with the results of a 1930's experiment by British psychologist Sir Frederic Bartlett, Kirsner and Dunn were able to pinpoint the spot they thought the German ship would be found. Incredibly, the team was right, and a couple of days later the Sydney was discovered, as well.

You can read about Kirsner and Dunn's incredible find, and the famous experiment by Bartlett that inspired their investigation, over at NPR.


Top image via NPR