Titanic vs. Lusitania: Who Survived and Why?

The tragic voyages provided several economists with an an opportunity to compare how people behave under extreme conditions

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Name of ship: RMS Titanic

  • Passengers and crew: 2,207
  • Sunk: April 14, 1912,  collided with an iceberg
  • Time to sink: 2 hours, 40 minutes
  • Deaths: 1,517
  • Survival rate: 31.3%

Name of ship: RMS Lusitania

  • Passengers and crew: 1,949
  • Sunk: May 7, 1915, torpedoed by a German U-boat
  • Time to sink: 18 minutes
  • Deaths: 1,198
  • Survival rate: 38.5%

The tragic voyages of the RMS Titanic and RMS Lusitania have provided a group of economists with an an opportunity to compare how people behave under extreme conditions. (Their article appears in PNAS.) Despite the different reasons for sinking, the tales of the two ships carry some remarkable similarities: Both ships carried a similar composition of passengers and were unable to accommodate everyone aboard on the lifeboats. (In the case of the Titanic there simply were not enough boats for everyone. On the Lusitania, the ship listed to starboard after being struck by the torpedo and the crew was unable to launch all of the lifeboats.) Both captains ordered that women and children be given first priority on the boats. And both ships had a similar survival rate.

The composition of the survivors was very different, though. On the Titanic, women aged 16 to 35 (child-bearing age) were more likely to survive than other age groups, as were children and people with children. On the Lusitania, both women and men aged 16 to 35 were the most likely to have lived through the incident. There were class differences, too. First-class passengers fared the best on the Titanic but the worst—even worse than third-class passengers—on the Lusitania.

What happened? The researchers say it all comes down to time.

The passengers of the Lusitania had less than 20 minutes before their ship sank, and in such a life-and-death situation, social scientists say, "self-interested reactions predominate." It didn't matter what the captain ordered. The ship was going down and people reacted selfishly, and in such a situation, it would be expected that people in their prime (16 to 35) would be the most likely to win a seat on a lifeboat. In addition, because there were difficulties in launching those boats, people in that age group would have had an additional advantage because they were more likely to have had the strength and agility to stay on board a rocking boat or to climb back in after falling into the water.

The Titanic, though, sank slowly enough for social norms to hold sway. The passengers generally held to the rule of "women and children first" even though they could have easily overpowered the crew. And first- and second-class passengers may have benefited from the extra time in which they may have had earlier or better information from the crew or had other advantages.

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