In a recently published working paper (see here), Swedish economists Elinder & Erixson revisit the issue of gender, social norms, and survival in maritime disasters. This topic has attracted some attention through the controversial work of Frey et al. (e.g., here; see also here) which made much of the alleged bravery of male passengers on the Titanic who allegedly sacrificed themselves so that women and children might be saved, seemingly providing further evidence for a “women and children first” social norm. Specifically, Frey et al. argued that “even though the two vessels and the composition of their passengers were quite similar, the behavior of the individuals on board was dramatically different. On the Lusitania, selfish behavior dominated (which corresponds to the classical homo economicus); on the Titanic, social norms and social status (class) dominated, which contradicts standard economics. This difference could be attributed to the fact that the Lusitania sank in 18 min, creating a situation in which the short-run flight impulse dominated behavior. On the slowly sinkingTitanic (2 h, 40 min), there was time for socially determined behavioral patterns to reemerge.“ (from their abstract)
There was much wrong with the Frey et al paper (an earlier version of which I reviewed for another journal). The authors’ assumption that these two “treatments” differed only in the speed of sinking was unwarranted, as speed of sinking, and time pressure, were confounded along multiple dimensions. For example, the knowledge conditions were quite different across the two “treatments”. The Titanic sank three years earlier than the Lusitania; it also had a reputation for being ‘unsinkable’ that made it easy to seemingly accept the “women-and-children-first” social norm. Indeed, the first life boat was launched only one hour after the Titanic struck an iceberg and was populated only by a fraction of the passengers it could carry. In essence, chivalry seemed rather inexpensive on the Titanic. At least during the first couple of hours. In contrast, the passengers on the Lusitania almost certainly knew about the sinking of the Titanic. They also knew that their ship was likely to be targeted by the German Imperial fleet. Thus the passengers on the Lusitania surely had no doubt what happened, and what their likely fate would be, when the Lusitania was hit by a torpedo. That very moment chivalry had become rather expensive.
Elinder & Erixson analyse a database of 18 maritime disasters spanning three centuries, and covering the fate of over 15,000 individuals of more than 30 nationalities. Taking their cue from the work of Frey and his collaborators, they test six hypotheses.
Their results suggests that there is little place for chivalry during maritime disasters: Women have a substantially lower survival rate than men. Contradicting the adage that captains (and crews) go last in these kind of situations, Elinder & Erixson find that crews, and captains, do significantly better than passengers (whether female or male); see Figure 1 in their paper. (Yes, Francesco Schettino, you are not alone.) Predictably, children fare worst. Importantly, the authors also find that duration of a disaster has no effect on the survival probability of social norms. The one thing that seems to give the “women-and-children-first” social norm a chance is an explicit policy of the captain. Essentially this finding demonstrates that the potential for punishment has some sway. Elinder & Erixson (2012, p. 8) also show “that women fare worse, rather than better, in maritime disasters involving British ships. This contrasts with the notion of British men being more gallant than men of other nationalities.”