Bias On The Bridge: What Went Wrong On The Titanic

Outlier solutions are absurd or too simple. That’s why they work.

(This article previously appeared in Chief Executive Magazine)

“As we know, surprises come in three varieties according to former Secretary of Defense: the known knowns — things we know we know; the known unknowns — things we know we do not know; and the unknown unknowns — things we do not know we do not know.”

— Donald Rumsfeld

If you draw your three circles of competence, the things you do not know that you do not know are at the heart of big disasters, nuclear reactor meltdowns, unintended wars, surprise terror attacks, and lastly, pandemics. (Author’s Note: The latter is a good way to describe what happens with children when parents are not around).

The media loves unknown unknowns. They lend themselves to an orgy of blame and shame which are two of the most powerful incentives in a click-worthy world. You saw this with Covid. Was it politicians? China? Bats? Yeah, that’s it. Bats.

This is the problem with unknown unknowns. Even if our hunch is wrong we turn it into a known known and that makes us feel better.

On April 14, 1912, it happened on board the Titanic.

Titanic Failure

“Everything is settled for the greater good of the greatest number by the common sense of most after the consultation of all.” — Winston Churchill

The Sinking of the Titanic on April 14, 1912, by Willy Stöwer

Mob hysteria sounds like something that happens at English football games. It’s a more common phenomenon than you may realize. It also happened officers aboard the RMS Titanic denied the concerns of the crew on her maiden voyage. Four days after embarking, the ship struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic. As moviegoers know, it descended to its final resting place in the Atlantic Ocean three hours later, taking 1,518 of its 2,228 passengers, including Captain Edward Smith and his crew. The tragedy was not just a loss of life, but as we now know, it was preventable. The question that continues to mystify people is in what way?

The crew became aware of icebergs when the Titanic telegraph operator received the following message: ‘Westbound steamers report icebergs, growlers (huge chunks of ice) and field ice on April 12’, and it goes on to point out the latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates. It was plain as day that trouble lay ahead. Yet, the officers on the bridge held the ship’s course. How could they?

The mates on the lookout argued the ship should swing south to avoid the iceberg, but the captain and others didn’t pay much attention. They were, after all, only shipmates. The most dangerous form of groupthink is when a leader sticks to conventional thinking, which can be more disastrous than insanity. On that fateful night, the officers aboard the Titanic turned into the equivalent of football hooligans — wearing epaulets, and not knowing what they didn’t know.

Titanic Captain Edward Smith

Captain Edward Smith was an experienced transoceanic pilot, but heuristics played a decisive role in guiding his actions. Smith had a schedule to meet, and a long-held rule holds that lateness is a sign of incompetence on the high seas; ships sail past ice sheets all the time without incident. In this case, he relied on pattern recognition, a heuristic that makes us believe that it must be the same when we see something that reminds us of something.

These considerations created a group mentality aboard the Titanic bridge that no one dared dispute. The mates were looking at icebergs; the officers saw only the stars guiding them homewards. The outcome was catastrophic and far worse than if the least seaworthy individual were at the wheel.

Humorist Jean Kerr once said, “The only reason they say ‘Women and children first is to test the strength of the lifeboats.” While funny but untrue, she pokes at the heart of what contributed to the Titanic disaster.

“Women and children first” is a noble gesture from the age of chivalry when men fought wars and women bred children. In the era before the Titanic, this was the way life was lived. Onboard the Titanic it was the way life ended.

The idea for offboarding women and children began when the HMS Birkenhead ran aground off South Africa in 1852, and the sinking of the Titanic may have popularized it. Still, it was not a widely obeyed dictum. Onboard, the survival rate for women was three times higher than men or crew. Records show that the result may have been a mixed signal from Captain Smith, who ordered: “put the women and children in and lower away.“ Apparently, the crew interpreted this to mean women and children only (instead of first), which may be where the problem began.

The practice may sound noble in prospect, but in actuality, it means that no one aboard the lifeboat has the strength to haul lines or row or heave water or drag a drowning survivor into the boat in the way a group of men might. Secondly, filling the boat demographically meant delays, just like the attempt to set quotas for the pandemic vaccine did, and boats were launched only half full. Under ordinary circumstances, none of these things would have mattered. But in a ‘black swan’ condition with only three hours to stay afloat (although they did not know this), time was essential and the practice wasted precious hours. Again, operating outside of your circle of competency is dangerous.

Smith’s other problem was that he had never read the work of British social scientist Sir Francis Galton. Had he done so before risking collision with an iceberg, he would have suggested a poll of the 2200 passengers, asking them to vote for on-time arrival with some risk, or choose a later arrival and play it safe. The idea of a ship captain asking his passengers’ opinion is laughable, right? But that’s the whole point behind crowd wisdom. Those who know nothing may know more than an expert when banded together. The answer would have saved 1,500 lives. None of this happened, and he paid dearly for it.

Galton was visiting the annual Fair of England Fat Stock and Poultry in 19096, several years before the Titanic voyage, and was watching a group “gathered to appraise the quality of each other’s cattle, sheep, chickens, horses, and pigs.” For an 86 year old renowned researcher in statistics and heredity, nothing could be more fun. He was having a delightful time when he stumbled across the principle that still guides our understanding of crowd wisdom.

As Galton strolled the fairgrounds, a group of men and women placed bets on the weight of an ox standing by a scale. After they recorded their best guess, they submitted it on a piece of scrap paper like an election card at a voting booth. Galton recognized statistical gold when he saw it and recovered the slips of paper from the bin.

Eight hundred people took part in the bet. They were a mixed group — farmers who worked with livestock — others who were two generations into the industrial revolution and knew nothing about oxen. As he studied the estimates, he saw something profound, mindset diversity. “The average competitor was probably as well fitted for making a just estimate of the dressed weight of the ox as an average voter is of judging the merits of most political issues.”

Galton compiled the 787 guesses (13 were illegible) and graphed them “from highest to lowest.” The average produced “the collective wisdom of the Plymouth crowd.” Galton presumed the percentage of the guesses would be far off. The crowd pegged the ox at 1,197 pounds. He went over to the judge’s stand and inquired. The ox tipped the scale at 1,198 pounds.

The group was one pound off.

The lesson Galton gave us was that “under the right circumstances, groups are smarter than the smartest people in them. Even if most are not especially well-informed or rational, it can still reach a collectively wise decision.” Winston Churchill described the same phenomenon, referring to war cabinet deliberations: “Everything is settled for the greater good of the greatest number by the common sense of most after the consultation of all.”

“The consultation of all” is the critical thing.

Professor of Leadership. Extraordinary Lives Project. Author “Be Somebody” (2021); 2019 Telly Award; ex-publisher Forbes