The Washington Post

The real story on shipwrecks: Women and children last

Never let go, Jack— you’re statistically more likely to survive a shipwreck.

The recently re-released film “Titanic” did a lot of legwork convincing us that, if you’re on a sinking ship, you definitely do not want to be a dude. Women and children first, right?

Wrong. Swedish economists Mikael Elinder and Oscar Erixson crunch the numbers on shipwreck survivors and find that women and children fare the worst, while ship captains and crew members have especially high survival rates:

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 give priority to passengers. We analyze a database of 18 maritime disasters spanning three centuries, covering the fate of over 15,000 individuals of more than 30 nationalities. Our results provide a new picture of maritime disasters. Women have a distinct survival disadvantage compared to men. Captains and crew survive at a significantly higher rate than passengers. We also find that the captain has the power to enforce normative behavior, that the gender gap in survival rates has declined, that women have a larger disadvantage in British shipwrecks, and that there seems to be no association between duration of a disaster and the impact of social norms.

Titanic is the exception, rather than the rule. There, 70 percent of women and children survived, compared to 20 percent of male passengers. But for most shipwrecks, Elinder and Erixson think they have a better phrase to describe the social dynamics than “women and children first.” Instead, it’s “every man for himself.”

(h/t: Freakonomics)


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