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Planet Money

Why Didn't Passengers Panic On The Titanic?

As the Titanic was sinking and women and children climbed into lifeboats, the cellist and violinist from the ship's band stood and played. They died when the ship went down. Men stood on the deck and smoked cigars. They died, too.

This behavior is puzzling to economists, who like to believe that people tend to act in their own self interest.

"There was no pushing and shoving," says David Savage, an economist at Queensland University in Australia who has studied testimony from the survivors. It was "very, very orderly behavior."

Savage has compared the behavior of the passengers on the Titanic with those on the Lusitania, another ship that also sunk at about the same time.

But when the Lusitania went down, the passengers panicked.

There were a lot of similarities between these two events. This ships were both luxury liners, they had a similar number of passengers and a similar number of survivors.

The biggest difference, Savage concludes, was time. The Lusitania sank in less than 20 minutes. The Titanic took two-and-a-half hours.

"If you've got an event that lasts two-and-a-half hours, social order will take over and everybody will behave in a social manner," Savage says. "If you're going down in under 17 minutes, basically it's instinctual."

On the Titanic, social order ruled, and it was women and children first.

On the Lusitania, instinct won out. The survivors were largely the people who could swim and get into the lifeboats.

Yes, we're self-interested, Savage says. But we're also part of a society. Given time, societal conventions can trump our natural self-interest. A hundred years ago, women and children always went first. Men were stoic. On the Titanic, there was enough time for these norms to assert themselves.

Savage tells the story of one man who survived the wreck of the Titanic. He waited for women and children to get into the lifeboats. As the ship was about to sink, there was a lifeboat nearby with an empty seat. The people on the lifeboat boat told him to get in. Reluctantly, he got in.

When he got home, Savage says, "he was viewed as being a coward and he was derided by the press and everybody in the country for the rest of his life."

See more Titanic stories from NPR.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Let's turn now to one of history's most famous tragedies: the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. One hundred years later, we're still talking about it. Among the most compelling aspects of the story is the behavior of the passengers. People lined up in an orderly way for the lifeboats. Men smoked cigars calmly on deck - men who would soon be dead.

That kind of behavior has been studied by biologists, psychologists, even economists, as NPR's Zoe Chace and Caitlin Kenney from our Planet Money team explain.

CAITLIN KENNEY, BYLINE: In the 1997 movie, there's this amazing moment. As people get into the lifeboats, the ship's band, the cellist and the violinist, they pick up their bows and play.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "TITANIC")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as character) All right, boys. Like the captain said, nice and cheery, so there's no panic, "Wedding Dance."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WEDDING DANCE")

ZOE CHACE, BYLINE: This isn't just Hollywood. This actually happened. According to survivor accounts, the band played as the ship went down. And the band members died.

KENNEY: This is weird for economists, because economists like to believe that people tend to act in their own self interest.

DAVID SAVAGE: No pushing and shoving - very, very orderly behavior. So the panic never actually kicked in.

CHACE: David Savage is a researcher with Queensland University in Australia. He studied testimony from the surviving passengers and crew.

KENNEY: He wanted to figure out why the people on the Titanic behaved the way they did when the ship sank. Another big ship went down around the same time. The people on that ship acted very differently. A movie was made about that, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SINKING OF THE LUSITANIA: TERROR AT SEA")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as character) (unintelligible) Fire.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

CHACE: The Lusitania was hit by a German U-boat. Its passengers totally panicked.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

KENNEY: The two events had a lot of similarities: luxury liners, same time period, same amount of passengers, same amount of survivors. The biggest difference, Savage concludes: time. The Lusitania sank in less than 20 minutes. The Titanic took about two-and-a-half hours.

SAVAGE: If you've got an event that lasts two-and-a-half hours, social order will take over, and everybody will behave in a social manner. If you're going down in under 17 minutes, well, basically, it's instinctual.

CHACE: On the Titanic, social order ruled. Just like in the movie, it was women and children first.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "TITANIC")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (as character) Step aboard.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) Come on, sister. You heard the man. Into the boat.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (as character) Any room for a gentleman, gentlemen?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Only women at this time, sir.

KENNEY: On the Lusitania, instinct won out. The survivors were basically the people who could swim and get into the lifeboats.

CHACE: Savage says, yes, we're self-interested. But we're also part of a society. Given enough time, societal conventions can trump our natural self-interest. At the time, women and children always went first and men were stoic. On the Titanic, there was enough time for this to play out.

KENNEY: If you didn't let others go ahead, what would people think of you? Savage tells the story of one of the passengers who survived, a guy at the back of the line who was convinced to get in a lifeboat.

SAVAGE: There was a spot left, and they said look, mate. There's a spot here. Take the spot. And he's like oh, no. I can't. I can't. I can't. I can't. So they convinced him. It's like, you're going to drown. Get on the boat. So he got on the boat. Well, he got back to Japan, and he was viewed as being a coward, and he was derided by the press and everybody in the country for the rest of his life.

CHACE: Social pressure has a massive amount of power over people's behavior.

SAVAGE: People are very friendly and helpful to each other, given enough time to actually instigate their social behavior.

KENNEY: More than 1,500 people went down with the Titanic. Some of them chose to. I'm Zoe Chace.

I'm Caitlin Kenney, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.