Skip to content

Every Man For Himself: Research Says Women and Children Less Likely to Survive a Shipwreck

07/31/2012 -

During the evacuation of the Titanic, men gave lifeboat priority to women and children, resulting in the survival of 70 percent of the women and children on board. But what happened on the Titanic isn’t the norm and may have spurred misconceptions about human behavior in disasters, according to a new study.

Two researchers from Uppsala University in Sweden found that men are more likely to survive a shipwreck than women and cruise ship staff more likely to survive thanpassengers.

The study, Every Man for Himself: Gender, Norms and Survival in Maritime Disasters, by Mikael Elinder and Oscar Erixson, analyzes the fates of 15,000 passengers in 18 shipwrecks from 1852 to 2011.

“Our findings show that behavior in life-and-death situation is best captured by the expression ‘Every man for himself,’” the authors write.

They found that despite the social norm of “women and children first” and the widespread belief that captains and crew give passengers priority, survivors were half as likely to be female. Crewmembers were 18.7 percent more likely than passengers to survive. Children had the lowest survival rate.

Elinder and Erixson also found that if captains gave Women and Children First (WCF) orders, the survival rate of women went up seven percent.

Women fare worse on British ships, however. Even after captains give a WCF order, “we find a larger survival disadvantage for women on British dominated ships,” they wrote. “This contrasts with the notion of British men being more gallant than men of other nationalities.”

The researchers present a couple theories on why males and crew members may survive more often. One is that men are physically stronger than women.

“In theevacuation of a sinking ship, success is typically determined by the ability to move fast through corridors and stairs, which is often made difficult by heavy list, congestion, and debris. Other traits that may enhance survival prospects, such as aggressiveness, competitiveness, and swimming ability, are also more prevalent in men,” the study says.

Another is that even though crew members may have orders to leave the ship after passengers, they are more familiar with the ship, have had emergency training, and are likely to receive information on the severity of the situation before passengers. Only seven out of 16 captains in the study went down with the ship.

The results of the study were published Monday byProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“We find that it seems as if it is the policy of the captain, rather than the moral sentiments of men, that determines if women are given preferential treatment in shipwrecks. This suggests an important role for leaders in disasters,” the authors write.

photo byGollyGforce/flickr