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Titanic Chivalrous Rule of 'Women and Children First,' Rare in Real Life

Update Date: Apr 16, 2012 01:26 AM EDT

The evacuation method of 'Women and Children First,' adopted by Titanic, which foundered during its maiden voyage a century ago, was only exceptional. More men survive than women and children in real life sea disasters, according to a new study.

Based on analyses of a data base containing  information about the fates of more than 15,000 people from 18 of the most notable shipwrecks from the 19th century until today, Mikael Elinder and Oscar Erixson, researchers from Uppsala University conclude that the common belief that men show more politeness to women and children when the question of survival comes during such a tragedy is a myth.

The research results show that captains and crew are more likely to survive than passengers in maritime disasters. It was also found that women and children are more inclined to die than men. It appears as if it is every man for himself, says Mikael Elinder at the Department of Economics, Uppsala University and at the Research Institute of Industrial Economics (IFN).

The foundering of the Titanic has, through popular culture and extensive research, shaped the common beliefs about what happens in maritime disasters. On the Titanic, the captain ordered women and children first. Men who disobeyed the order risked being shot. Men stood back while women and children were given priority to board the life boats. As a consequence, the survival rate of the women and children was much higher than that of the men.

However, authors' research clearly shows that the Titanic disaster was exceptional. These new findings shows that when one's life is at risk, it is "every man for himself", rather than "women and children first."

They show that the survival rate of women is substantially lower than the survival rate of men. This is irrespective of when in history the disaster occurred, or if the ship sank quickly or slowly. Children have the lowest survival rate, while the highest survival rates are observed for crew and captains. The latter observation stands in sharp contrast to what we should expect if the crew follows procedures and assists passengers to safety, before saving themselves.

Although, maritime disasters are tragic events, they can contribute to our understanding of how people behave under extreme stress and when it is a matter of life and death, says Elinder. 

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