Do sinking ships put women and children first?

by on January 6, 2015 at 1:04 am in History, Law, Uncategorized | Permalink

There is a new paper on this topic, not by Bruno Frey, rather by Mikael Elinder, the abstract is this:

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. 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 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. We also find 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 World War I; and women have a larger disadvantage in British shipwrecks. Taken together, our findings show that human behavior in life-and-death situations is best captured by the expression “every man for himself.”

The pointer is from Ben Southwood.

1 Hideous January 6, 2015 at 1:11 am

Men’s survival advantage need not proceed from any lack of chivalry. Men average physically-stronger and larger. They are better able to swim, to cling to wreckage, etc. and to stave off hypothermia (better surface-area to volume ratio, more muscle to generate heat with). There is no need to suppose that men steal resources like lifejackets or lifeboat places from women to explain much of the survival difference.

2 BC January 6, 2015 at 6:05 am

From the paper: “an observed survival advantage of women is regarded as supporting evidence of behavior being governed by the WCF [women and children first] norm. A small survival disadvantage for women is difficult to interpret, as it can either indicate that the WCF norm has helped women from a potentially larger disadvantage or that the norm has not been upheld. However, if we observe a substantial survival disadvantage of women we regard it as evidence that compliance with the WCF norm is exceptional in maritime disasters.”

So, the authors are not as oblivious to the distinction between [in]equality of opportunity and equality of results as the abstract might at first seem to suggest.

3 TMC January 6, 2015 at 11:45 am

Seems they recognize it, then disregard it.

4 Pshrnk January 6, 2015 at 10:30 am

“They are better able to swim” ????

Women have advantages as endurance athletes…such as they on average have greater fat stores and are better able to mobilize them for muscular energy requirements. If the ship sinks and we have to swim for it I’d bet on Diana Nyad over me despite my maleness and relative youth.

5 datroof jackson January 6, 2015 at 12:00 pm

Oh so the comparison is average male versus full-time trained female…I get it.

6 Pshrnk January 6, 2015 at 1:06 pm

“Average male”….That sir is highly offensive!

7 KPres January 6, 2015 at 12:34 pm

If women have an advantage as endurance athletes, then why are all the male marathon record times so much lower than the female?

8 Pshrnk January 6, 2015 at 1:05 pm

Ultra-marathons are much more relevant to survival in a life raft or swimming/floating to survive.

9 John Mansfield January 6, 2015 at 10:41 am

Endurance in cold water is one setting where women’s greater body fat helps them. Consider the results from the 2012 Olympics for the 10 km swim and the marathon run. The times for the first and tenth place men in the swim were 1:49:55 and 1:50:48, and for the women they were 1:57:38 and 1:58:53. Corresponding times for the marathon were 2:08:01 and 2:12:45 for men, and 2:23:07 and 2:25:51 for women. The gap between men and women for distance swimming was half that for running.

10 TMC January 6, 2015 at 11:48 am

True, but I’d bet most of the data is from much older disasters.
Women on board would be old, rich and less fit.
The crew would be young and fit.

11 Marie January 6, 2015 at 12:18 pm

“In a survival situation, the fat get skinny and the skinny die”

But I won’t get overly hopeful for my own chances in 2016. Maybe a bronze.

12 Dave January 6, 2015 at 1:17 am
13 Curt F. January 6, 2015 at 1:28 am

How did they tell all those things from only 18 data points? I think I believe their first two claims or so but after that the evidence gets weak. Check out column 9 of table 2. p-values are very weak, and in many cases they are interpreting a failure to reject the null hypothesis as evidence for the null hypothesis, a common error.

14 lemmy caution January 6, 2015 at 10:23 am

They are using 18 data points rather than 1 data point. An improvement!

15 lemmy caution January 6, 2015 at 10:26 am
16 David Rüegger January 6, 2015 at 11:16 am

They run 18 regressions, with several hundred data points (=passengers) for each one, not one regression with 18 data points. Assuming independence across disasters (very likely to be valid) allows you to estimate average marginal effects and their confidence intervals quite precisely. No problem with N here.

17 Curt F. January 6, 2015 at 12:12 pm

That isn’t right. They are using models with a disaster-specific term (as they should because disasters are unlike each other). No there aren’t hundreds of data points in each regression. There are 18.

18 So Much for Subtlety January 6, 2015 at 1:29 am

Women have a distinct survival disadvantage compared with 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

Well that is a bit of a worry about the Captain and crew. But on the other hand, they do know the ship and presumably have lots of practice in getting off the ship. No surprise that he has the power to influence everyone else though.

However I agree with Hideous. Men are stronger and survive longer in the water. Children do particularly badly. They have a small mass to volume ratio and so lose heat quickly. A lot of children got off the Titanic but then died in the boats from the cold.

As we move into a non-sexist society we shouldn’t be prioritizing one sex or the other. All lives are, more or less, of equal value. We should be aiming to maximize the number of lives saved. Which means it is better to give space on the boats to those who need them the least – strong young males. So in the end, every man for himself probably does maximize the number of human lives saved and hence should be the preferred option.

19 honkie please January 6, 2015 at 12:09 pm

Alex: I’m sorry, no.
Watson: What is lower mass to surface area?
Alex: Yes!

20 Pshrnk January 6, 2015 at 1:07 pm


21 Marian Kechlibar January 7, 2015 at 2:34 am

Well, in such a situation, “more or less” is not a phrase anymore.

I would guess that the logical method would be “young first”, as they have more years of life to lose.

22 So Much for Subtlety January 7, 2015 at 5:25 am

I think more or less is a reasonable phrase. We could debate about which lives are more valuable but I am not sure it would be worthwhile.

Young lives, yes. We could find a measure like the NHS’s QALY: the expected number of quality years ahead of someone. But does that mean we ought to prioritize a doctor over a housewife? However if we decide the young ought to survive, we need then to adjust for the likelihood of surviving once in the water. The very young are extremely unlikely to do so. Half the children on the Titanic died even though virtually all of them made it to the boats.

So we come back to the very strong – young males in particular. Which is what fighting for the boats actually selects for.

23 FC January 6, 2015 at 2:54 am

Everyone should take a moment to read their “Data” section. “Starting from the list Some Notable Shipwrecks since 1854, published in the 140th Edition of The World Almanac and the Book of Facts,” and it just gets funnier from there.

24 carlospln January 6, 2015 at 3:05 am


‘What kind of crazy world do we live in where heroes are are cast as villains, where brave men are cowards?’


25 Kiwiakos January 6, 2015 at 3:30 am

This is written for D McCloskey

26 chuck martel January 6, 2015 at 6:13 am

Apparently some Swedes have more time and/or money on their hands than they know what to do with. Rather than do sudoku or crosswords they scan almanacs to produce analyses of zero utility based upon dubious data. They’d be more useful picking up trash on the street.

27 Alan January 6, 2015 at 6:17 am

There are two kinds of papers in the social sciences:
1. Papers that re-inforce my prior beliefs
2. Useless papers.

28 Marie January 6, 2015 at 12:21 pm

Are you sure #1 isn’t a subset of #2? It often is for me. . ..

29 yo January 6, 2015 at 6:32 am

They probably thought about that, but I think they quickly figured out that there is no trash left on Swedish streets.

30 Ray Lopez January 6, 2015 at 8:01 am

Interesting paper, even if only 18 data points.

I do notice the ‘trend’ in modern maritime disasters is for the captain and crew to be first off the ship, sadly. A lot of seamen btw do not know how to swim, and further, in modern ships when it goes down the undertow will suck you with it, if the ship is over 10k tons, so swimming won’t really save you unless you jump well clear of the ship, and anyway the deck is often quite far from the water.

31 Art Deco January 6, 2015 at 9:24 am

Captains and crew survive at a significantly higher rate than passengers.

You think maritime professionals might just have a fund of knowledge about how to survive in open water that ordinary people do not?

32 Ray Lopez January 6, 2015 at 9:58 am

@Art Deco, yes they do. It’s called getting to the lifeboats first and casting off faster than the passengers can! 🙂

33 JKB January 6, 2015 at 10:17 am

The captains may be a problem, but for the crew it is called manning the life boats. At least two crew will be assigned to load and handle the liferaft (in modern usage), more for lifeboats.

As for the Captain, his position on the bridge does put him away from most of the danger until complete sinking. Thus he is likely to avoid casualty until rescue vessels arrive or everyone able is away in survival craft.

34 Matt2 January 6, 2015 at 11:31 am

Not really, no. We have survival training, should be more familiar with equipment, etc but in most cases that isn’t really a factor.

Very few people are ever rescued after swimming around for several hours. As noted the single best way to survive an evacuation is to get into the lifeboats. The events in question all appear to be passenger ships so the the “manning the boats” theory doesn’t appear valid to me. Many more crew members would be assigned to ride in the boats than be involved in operating them.

35 TallDave January 8, 2015 at 5:17 pm

I assumed they were just less drunk.

36 charlie January 6, 2015 at 9:56 am
37 A Definte Beta Guy January 6, 2015 at 9:57 am

I have no idea why anyone cares about this. If you are going to examine Elinder’s research, why not something more germane:

38 Ray Lopez January 6, 2015 at 10:02 am

@ADBG – yes, that’s germane. It goes to this link:

39 Pshrnk January 6, 2015 at 10:34 am

“women have a larger disadvantage in British shipwrecks.” Blimey! I’d give up my life boat seat for lady Mary.

40 Sam Haysom January 6, 2015 at 11:13 am

Maybe the majority of the passengers on a large ship during the period when ships regularily sank werent made up of the chivalrous types. An Italian immigrant single and childless probally isn’t going to rate chivalry high on his priorities. I believe it is a fact that on the Titanic survival rates for women and children as compared to me increased steadily from steerage to second class and from second class to first class. It seems like the chivalrous classes actually were pretty chivalrous.

41 msgkings January 6, 2015 at 11:59 am

Isn’t this a thread where we should get a visit from the Commodore?

42 Marie January 6, 2015 at 12:23 pm

I was looking, too.

43 Rich Berger January 6, 2015 at 12:58 pm

At least some of us kept our eyes on the ball.

44 Robert January 6, 2015 at 1:27 pm

It may be interesting for you Economists to watch last Sunday’s “Family Guy”, where Stewie uses his Time Machine to board the Titanic and disguises himself as a woman to gain access to a lifeboat (after Chris throws someone overboard who stands in his way)

45 Edward Burke January 6, 2015 at 2:20 pm

Are we to understand that NO maritime captains are female? and that no crew members are female?

How could such things be?

46 Matt2 January 6, 2015 at 2:35 pm

In the past 30 years it’s become much more common. Particularly in the last 10 – 15 years female enrollment at the Maritime Academies in the US has surged. My last boss had her Chief Officer’s license and I see female officers and unlicensed crew often enough now that it is unremarkable.

This batch of comments is pretty depressing – if the comments on posts that I’m not knowledgeable about are this irrelevant and/or uniformed I’m not learning half as much as I thought I was.

47 Chris January 7, 2015 at 12:24 am

Matt2, this is pretty common everywhere, not just on this site. Every time I read comments on an article about weather or climate modeling I cringe.

48 blades January 6, 2015 at 4:23 pm

One of the NPR shows did an hour-long on this subject shortly after the Italian wreck of a few years ago. Surprisingly, the interviewer broached the subject of whether northern European crews had a more chivalrous record then southern European crews, and the interviewee/expert said that they did. He told this great anecdote:

After the end of World War II, Winston Churchill took an Italian ocean liner on a trip to New York City from Britain. He was interviewed by a host of reporters on his arrival, and one of them asked why he made the surprising decision to take an Italian liner rather than a British one.

His answer, best imagined with a gruff Churchillian tone, was something like:

Well, first of all, Italian service is impeccable, the best in the world.
Second, the Italian meals were prepared by master chefs, and were exquisite.
Third, in the event of a shipwreck, there’s none of this nonsense about women and children first.

49 Peter January 6, 2015 at 11:13 pm

About 20 years ago the car ferry Estonia sank in the Baltic Sea after its bow doors somehow opened. It sank so quickly that only about a quarter of the 1,000+ passengers survived.
One strange thing became apparent from the survival statistics. While the passengers were about evenly divided between Swedish and Estonian people, the Estonians were far more likely to survive.
The reason had to do with Sweden’s very high alcohol taxes and restrictive liquor laws. In reaction, many people in Sweden used the Baltic ferries as impromptu booze cruises, taking advantage of their cheap liquor. It was likely that many of the Swedish passengers were completely hammered when the ferry sank and had no ability to save themselves.

50 SG January 8, 2015 at 4:58 pm

More ammunition to feed the War on Women (TM) narrative.

51 TallDave January 8, 2015 at 5:14 pm

In what proportion of maritime disasters does chivalry actually matter? Seems more likely they discovered the answer to that question.

Anyways, can’t take a study of 18 whole disasters very seriously.

52 Raynoch January 12, 2015 at 11:04 pm

Thanks for shiarng. Always good to find a real expert.

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