British passengers on the Titanic died in disproportionate numbers because they queued politely for lifeboats while Americans elbowed their way on, an Australian researcher believes.
David Savage, a behavioural economist at the Queensland University of Technology, studied four 20th-century maritime disasters to determine how people react in life and death situations. He concluded that, on the whole, behaviour is influenced by altruism and social norms, rather than a "survival of the fittest" mentality. However, on the Titanic he noted Americans were 8.5 per cent more likely to survive than other nationalities, while British passengers were 7 per cent less likely to survive.
"The only things I can put that down to are: there would have been very few Americans in steerage or third class; and the British tend to be very polite and queue." (The ship's first-class staterooms were closest to the lifeboat deck.)
Mr Savage said there were plenty of examples of gentlemanly conduct by British passengers and crew after the Titanic hit an iceberg during its maiden voyage in 1912.
The captain, Edward John Smith, shouted out: "Be British, boys, be British!" as the cruise liner went down, according to witnesses. One wealthy passenger, recognising he was doomed, donned a tuxedo and declared: "I'm going to go down well dressed."
More than 1,500 people died, the majority men, as women and children were taken off first. Women had a 51.7 per cent better chance of survival than men, according to Mr Savage's analysis, while women accompanied by children were 74 per cent better off.
"Ideally, you would have been a female with a child in first class," he said yesterday. The same principles prevailed a century on, during last week's crash landing of a plane on New York's Hudson River, he observed. Women and children were rescued first, and the pilot remained in the aircraft until he was sure all passengers were safely out. "We find the whole concept of mass panic – everyone looking after themselves – doesn't hold that strong," Mr Savage said.
It was different, however, during another disaster: the sinking of an Italian ocean liner, the Andrea Doria, following a collision with a Swedish ship in 1956. Although most people survived, some passengers complained the crew had been more concerned with getting themselves into lifeboats than rescuing others. Mr Savage believes self-interest is more likely to take over when people are not in family or social groups.
After the cruise liner Lusitania was torpedoed by a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland in 1915, it sank in 18 minutes. "There wasn't a lot of time for people to organise themselves into their social groups." But Mr Savage said he had no direct evidence that Americans on the Titanic were pushy or rude, "But a significantly higher number survived, and there's got to be a reason," he said.