Amanda Ripley

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Women & Children First?

18th Apr 2012 posted in Disaster Behavior

On the Titanic, 70% of the women and children survived—but only 20% of the men. Cue the orchestra!

But was the Titanic the exception? A new study investigates whether women and children really do have an advantage on a sinking ship.

It is so refreshing, first of all, to see a study focus obsessively on the thing that matters most in a disaster—the behavior of the humans involved. Naturally, the results show that life is more complicated than the movies.

The study, out of Sweden, concludes that it is in fact worse to be a woman on a shipwreck, based on a study of 18 maritime disasters involving over 15,000 people. The survival rate of women was 27% vs. 37% for men (see Table C1). But children have the lowest survival rate of all at 15%. And crew members have the highest rate of anyone at 61%!

The authors have some compelling data, but their conclusion jumps the shark:

Taken together, our findings show that behavior in life-and-death situation is best captured by the expression ‘Every man for himself’.

Um, really? I look at the same set of facts and make a very different conclusion.

The most important detail in the study is actually the crew survival rate. To me, these figures show that the most valuable asset in a disaster is not gender; it’s experience.

The crew members knew where the life boats were. They knew how to operate them. And they knew how to swim.

They weren’t afraid to take action; they weren’t waiting for instructions; they weren’t down below trying to save the children (a likely explanation for the death of at least some of the female passengers.)

This doesn’t mean that crew members are all cowards who flee in the life boats while passengers die. That may happen sometimes, but the opposite also happens. Crew members, given their roles, may go to extreme lengths to help rescue passengers. And who knows? The passenger survival rate might be even worse if crew members did not have this inclination.

Personally, I think the question of chivalry on a sinking ship is less interesting. There are too many compounding factors in a real disaster to be able to isolate whether people were being gender neutral or not. (Indeed, even more women might have died if the women-and-children-first slogan had never existed. Who knows?)

Anyway, the good news here is that knowledge matters. Under strain, the brain reverts to what it knows best. If you’ve got muscle memory for getting into a life boat, you’ll be better off than someone who doesn’t. This kind of study should encourage cruise ship safety directors (not to mention building and airplane personnel) to give people physical experience trying on life jackets and releasing life boats. These are not onerous tasks; you do them with crew members all the time. Now do them with the rest of us.

Thanks to Freakonomics and @DaniloBalu for noticing the study!