Associated Press

Death by Politeness: How Brits on the Titanic Met Their Doom

January 23, 2009 09:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
A behavioral economist says that British men were too polite to fight for spots in lifeboats on the sinking Titanic.

Chivalry Killed British Men Aboard the Titanic

British women who survived the Titanic’s sinking testified that their husbands calmly put them on lifeboats and did not fight for their own lives. Researcher David Savage of the Queensland University of Technology told the BBC that the behavior of British men on the Titanic reflected the Edwardian tenet of behaving like a gentleman.

In contrast, Americans of that time followed a more individualistic code of behavior. Savage found that while Americans were 8.5 percent more likely to survive than passengers from other countries, the British were 7 percent more likely to die. Savage suggests that two factors may have boosted Americans’ survival: they were less likely to politely line up for lifeboats, and most of them were in first-class compartments, which were closer to the lifeboat deck. However, he admits that he has no evidence that Americans behaved rudely in their effort to leave the Titanic.

Savage, a behavioral economist, made these observations about the Titanic as part of a larger study of human responses to maritime disasters. His theory is that altruism and social conventions, not desire to survive, have the strongest influence on human behavior in crisis situations. Savage witnessed the same behavioral pattern in the January 2009 US Airways plane crash on the Hudson; women and children were rescued first.

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Opinion and Analysis: Are Americans Getting Ruder?

The general consensus seems to be that Americans place little value on polite behavior, and the situation has only grown worse in recent years. At town meetings around the nation, people scream at each other and use insults. Across the board, in all industries, people are becoming increasingly uncivil.

Related Topic: Polite Behavior Also Kills in Japan

Like the British men who insisted upon dying like gentlemen, Japanese victims of the Aum Shinrikyo cult subway attacks also tried to keep social conventions alive, even as they were being poisoned from sarin gas.

The cult released the gas on five Japanese subways in March 1995. Haruki Murakami’s book “Underground” chronicles the way that some commuters were too polite to comment upon or move away from the source of the foul-smelling gas; as a result, they suffered more serious injuries.

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