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Why Didn't Passengers Panic On The Titanic?

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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/.

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