Hey, that’s Kenneth More as Second Officer Lightoller in the 1958 film, A Night To Remember, making sure that (rich, from their clothes) women and children get into the Titanic’s lifeboats first. That’s a great image of the chivalry of the sea, but a recent study suggests that the image may not be typical of what happens in maritime disasters.

two researchers at Uppsala University in Sweden studied the survival rates for men, women, and children in 16 shipwrecks occurring between 1852 and 1911.The researchers found that in the majority of cases, women and children died “at significantly higher rates than male passengers and crew members”. In the majority of cases, no “women and children first” order was given at the time of the wreck. Titanic is a somewhat mythic exception to the rule.

To quote from the New York Times review of the study,

“Despite the findings, an author of the study, Oscar Erixson, a doctoral student at Uppsala, was not prepared to condemn the behavior of men, British or otherwise.

“You could argue that men acted badly, but it’s hard to say how the women acted,” he said. “We haven’t studied individual behavior. Women could have acted just as badly but didn’t succeed against stronger competition.”

It may be, Mr. Erixson continued, that it is not men’s or women’s behavior that is at issue, but human behavior. “Survivors may feel bad if we accuse them of acting selfishly,” he said, “but wanting to take care of oneself rather than others — this may be normal behavior for all human beings.”

Read the whole NYT piece here.