Titanic is an Exception among Disasters at Sea

Press release
11 April 2012

On April 15, a century have passed since the Titanic foundered during its maiden voyage. Since then there has been a widespread belief that in a disaster, women and children will be saved first. Based on analyses of 18 of the most notable shipwrecks from the 19th century until today, researchers from Uppsala University conclude that this is a myth.

-    It is expected that the crew should rescue passengers, but our results show that captains and crew are more likely to survive than passengers. We also find 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 is not only the most well-known disaster at sea, it has also, through popular culture and extensive research, shaped our beliefs about what happens in maritime disasters. During the evacuation of the Titanic, 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.

Economists Mikael Elinder and Oscar Erixson’s results contradict common beliefs about who survives in disasters at sea and how leaders and captains act in such disasters. Their 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’.

-    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 Mikael Elinder

The researchers have analyzed a data base containing information about passengers and crew from 18 of the most notable shipwrecks during the period 1852 to 2011. It contains information about the fates of more than 15,000 people, which makes it the most extensive analysis of survival patterns in maritime disasters. Previous studies have been based on two disasters only: RMS Titanic (1912) and RMS Lusitania (1915).

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 (see Figure 1). 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.

What makes Titanic exceptional? One possible explanation is how the leader –the captain– acts, say the researchers. On the Titanic, the captain ordered women and children first. Men who disobeyed the order risked being shot.

On the ships where the captain gave the order 'women and children first', the difference in survival rates between men and women is lower. But women survived to a higher extent than men only when this order was enforced by the threat of violence.

This indicates an important role of leaders in the face of disasters. It is, however, unusual for  captains to give such an order. Instead it is common that captains leave the ship and save themselves before the passengers.

-    The behavior of the captain in the recent and widely discussed grounding of the Costa Concordia is thus not an exception, but rather quite common in maritime disasters. The evacuation of the Titanic was exceptional, but has spurred a long-lived myth that women and children will be saved first in disasters, says Mikael Elinder.
Figure 1. Survival patterns between passengers and crew. Note. The category ‘Other shipwrecks’ excludes RMS Lusitania which, like RMS Titanic, has been previously investigated. The captain of the Titanic did not survive, hence there is no red bar for ‘Captain’.

Link to working paper: http://www.nek.uu.se/Pdf/wp20128.pdf">http://www.nek.uu.se/Pdf/wp20128.pdf">http://www.nek.uu.se/Pdf/wp20128.pdf

For more information, contact Mikael Elinder: phone +46 707 69 09 76, or email: mikael.elinder@nek.uu.se

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Figure 1