Keen to test humanity's capacity for selflessness in times of duress, the students of the "dismal science" reviewed survival data for some of history's worst shipwrecks. What they found was that women and children were only half as likely as crew members and captains to survive maritime disasters. Instead of "women and children first" and "the captain must go down with the ship," the rallying cry seemed to be "every man for himself," the authors wrote.
The study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences was based on the premise that crew members and male passengers stood the greatest chance of survival in a free-for-all ship evacuation, owing to greater strength and knowledge of the vessel. If men chose to sacrifice themselves for the sake of women and children, however, their survival rates should suffer accordingly. They did not.
In examining 18 disasters dating to the 1850s, the economists found little evidence that men were inclined to surrender their advantage. Overall, the survival rate was 61 percent for crew, 44 percent for captains, 37 percent for male passengers, 27 percent for women and 15 percent for children.
There were exceptions. The Titanic stood out in that an unusual percentage of women escaped death. The other was the Birkenhead, which carried hundreds of British military personnel and families when it sank off South Africa in 1852. It gave rise to the concept of "women and children first"; the men were ordered not to attempt to swim for the lifeboats as the ship sank.
For the most part, the study found that women faced worse survival rates aboard British vessels than those flagged by other nations. Female passengers aboard doomed English ships saw their survival rates drop nearly 10 percent, the authors said.
LOS ANGELES TIMES