DisastersMen in maritime disasters save themselves first --“women and children first” is a myth

Published 31 July 2012

Since the sinking of the Titanic, there has been a widespread belief that the social norm of “women and children first” gives women a survival advantage over men in maritime disasters, and that captains and crew members give priority to passengers; a new study find that the Titanic disaster, in which 70 percent of the women and children on board were saved compared to 20 percent of the men, is a glaring exception to the rule; during maritime disasters, men use their relative strength to save themselves; what is more, studies of human behavior during natural disasters show the same results: in life-and-death situations, it is every man for himself

"Women and children first" has no basis in fact // Source: kaskus.co.id

Since the sinking of the Titanic, there has been a widespread belief that the social norm of “women and children first” (WCF) gives women a survival advantage over men in maritime disasters, and that captains and crew members give priority to passengers.

The Titanic disaster, in which 70 percent of the women and children on board were saved compared to 20 percent of the men, is a glaring exception to the rule. The notion that men on board a sinking ship allow women and children to go into life boats first is just a myth.

The most recent example was provided by the captain of the Italian cruise ship, Costa Concordia, who left the deadly scene of shipwreck before all 4,200-plus passengers were evacuated (in fact, while he was leaving the ship, he sent his assistant to tell passengers that everything was under control).

Researchers have analyze a database of eighteen maritime disasters spanning three centuries, covering the fate of over 15,000 individuals of more than thirty nationalities. The research results provide a unique picture of maritime disasters. Women have a distinct survival disadvantage compared with men. Captains and crew survive at a significantly higher rate than passengers.

The researchers also found that:

  • the captain has the power to enforce normative behavior
  • there seems to be no association between duration of a disaster and the impact of social norms
  • women fare no better when they constitute a small share of the ship’s complement
  • the length of the voyage before the disaster appears to have no impact on women’s relative survival rate
  • the sex gap in survival rates has declined since the First World War
  • women have a larger disadvantage in British shipwrecks

The authors say that, taken together, the findings show that human behavior in life-and-death situations is best captured by the expression “every man for himself.”

AFP quotes the research authors to say that “self-regarding players comply with norms only if the cost of the social stigma of violation exceeds the cost of compliance.” They also noted that similar conclusions have been reached in other studies of human behavior during natural disasters. “What happened on the Titanic seems to have spurred misconceptions about human behavior in disasters,” the researchers concluded.

— Read more in Mikael Elinder et al., “Gender, social norms, and survival in maritime disasters,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (30 July 2012) (doi: 10.1073/pnas.1207156109)

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