Ninety-eight years ago today, the R.M.S Titanic hit an iceberg in the Atlantic Ocean and sank, taking with her 1,517 passengers and crew, and cementing her place in history forever. Three years later on May 7, 1915, the R.M.S. Lusitania was hit by a German U-boat torpedo and sank carrying with her 1,198 passengers and crew and serving as a pivot point in history, turning the world toward war. Both were tragedies of horrific proportions whose devastating effects rippled around the world; both still capture our imagination nearly a century later. Both offered lessons in the days, weeks and months after their sinking, and both still offer lessons almost a hundred years later.
Together, the Titanic and the Lusitania comprise two of the most investigated maritime tragedies in history. At the time, they taught us lessons about politics, engineering and arrogance. It is nearly a hundred years later and they are still teaching us, only now the lesson is in human nature, social order and our instinct to survive. In their paper appearing in the March 16, 2010 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Frey, et al. suggest that human behavior in life-or-death situations can vary depending upon the time pressure involved (1).
Even though the disasters occurred only three years apart and the composition of the passengers were quite similar, the behavior of the individuals onboard was anything but alike. On the Lusitania, people in their prime (ages 16-35) had a better chance of survival (7.9% for men and 10.4% for women), suggesting that the competition for survival was won most often by the fittest or strongest. On the Titanic, women in their prime had a better chance for survival (48.3%) whereas men in that group had a lower probability of surviving. This suggests that while both captains issued orders to follow the social norm of “woman and children first”, only the crew of the Titanic was able to successfully carryout these orders.
There are a number of reasons why Titanic’s crew may have had more success in enforcing the order of “woman and children first” than the crew of the Lusitania, but perhaps the most important is time. The Lusitania sank within 18 minutes of being struck by the German torpedo. The Titanic sank in 2 hours and 40 minutes, long enough, famously, for the ship’s band to gather on deck and play while the ship slowly filled with water. Long enough, the authors suggest, for the first adrenaline rush of fear and self-interest to subside and the adherence to social norms to reappear.
On board the rapidly sinking Lusitania, survival of the fittest was mostly likely the prevailing factor, although the authors acknowledge a number of other factors that could have influenced the passenger’s behavior, including the severe list of the ship that made some of the lifeboats unlaunchable, the fact that they were sailing at a time of war and the sinking of the Titanic three years earlier.
On board the Titanic, the ship sank so slowly that passengers were reluctant to accept that the “unsinkable” ship was sinking. So reluctant, in fact, that several of the first lifeboats launched were almost empty as they seemed less safe than staying onboard. And there was more time; time for economic class or social standing to reassert itself, time for the passengers and crew to sort out who was who, time for the adrenaline rush to pass and the higher-order brain functions to override instinct.
Was the time it took these two ships to sink the only thing that distinguished the difference in survivor demographics? It is impossible to ever know, but the authors do make a compelling argument that, given adequate time, our civilized selves can overrule our base instincts.
- Frey BS, Savage DA, & Torgler B (2010). Interaction of natural survival instincts and internalized social norms exploring the Titanic and Lusitania disasters. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 107 (11), 4862-5 PMID: 20194743
My son has been fascinatedd by the Titanic since he discoverd a book about it when he was in kindergarten. Through him I have learned more about the ship and the tragendy than I imagined possible, and he would want me to acknowledge that, while the Titanic hit the iceberg on April 14, it sank on April 15.
There’s more to civilization than a simple struggle between “higher” and “lower” brain functions. A few years ago I read a gripping account of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and disastrous retreat in 1812. The march out revealed stark contrasts in character. Some soldiers turned into bandits, while others would return from foraging with one piece of bread and divide it 16 ways among their surviving comrades. They all had plenty of time to reflect, but there was something very different about what they chose to do. History is full of similar examples.
You are right that the struggle between “higher” and “lower” brain functions is complex. This paper focused on the relationship between our instinct to survive and the time we have in a “live or die” situation (in this case, as sinking ship). In contrast, Napoleon’s retreat in 1812, although horrific, was not the same type of eminent death situation. You wouldn’t expect the same adrenaline surge in a prolonged march as in an unexpected disaster, nor could it be maintained for the duration of the march.
The authors noticed that, while the demographics of the passengers of the Titanic and Lusitania were very similar, the demographics of those who survived were dramatically different. Although there are certainly other variables to take into account (the perception that the Titanic was unsinkable being one; the fact that the passengers of the Lusitania would have seen the newspaper advertisements taken out by Germany warning transatlantic passengers that they sailed at their own risk being another) the most noticeable difference between the two disasters was the time it took the two ships to sink. Just because it took the Titanic two plus hours to sink, doesn’t mean that everyone on board had time to turn into “Gentlemen”, but those whose normal character would have been “gentlemen-like” might have had time for that character to overcome their base instinct to survive and prompted them to step back. It would seem that more did so on the Titanic than on the Lusitania.
It is an interesting argument, although the knowledge of the Titanic disaster might have been undervalued in their calculations. My son has a book about the Titanic where at different points in the story he can to make a choice and then turn to the appropriate page to see what happens to his character. He knows the Titanic sinks and that a lot of people die, and he always picks the choice that he thinks will mean he “lives”, it could be that the passengers of the Lusitania did the same thing.