How Will We Face the Worst?
Civilized societies are held together not just by laws but by customs, standards, and social norms. Yet how far are we from Hobbesian anarchy? If some great crisis or emergency hit, would people help one another, even at great cost to themselves? Or would it be every man for himself? Some evidence can be gained from a fascinating new study by economists Bruno Frey, David Savage, and Benno Torgler. The authors painstakingly gathered data on every passenger who was on board the RMS Titanic on the night of April 14, 1912. The ship struck an iceberg but sank almost three hours later, giving passengers and crew ample time to reveal their true character.
The nearby chart indicates that strong character was indeed evident on the sinking ship. While the overall survival rate of passengers was just 32 percent, the survival rate for women with children (under 16 years of age) was a whopping 95 percent. Women aboard the Titanic who did not have children survived at a lower rate, only 71 percent, and the survival rate for men was only 21 percent.
Source: Bruno S. Frey, David A. Savage, and Benno Torgler, “Behavior under Extreme Conditions: The Titanic Disaster,” Journal of Economic Perspectives 25, No. 1 (2011): 209-22.
While women with children were highly likely to survive, the overall survival rate of children was only 48 percent. An anecdote from survivor George Harder suggests a possible cause of this relatively low rate. According to Harder, John Jacob Astor saw a young boy kicked off a boat because he was not considered a child. Astor snatched a woman’s hat, put it on the fellow’s head, and then pushed him into a lifeboat, saying, “Here little girl, climb in.” The social norm of “women and children first” probably cost many teenage boys their lives.
First-class passengers were much more likely to survive than those in third class. This, however, may simply have reflected the fact that the lifeboats were situated on the upper decks. Interestingly, most crew members were English, and they did not favor the English, or even themselves, over other passengers.
All told, the new data indicate that traditional values played an enormously important role in determining the survival of Titanic passengers. The worst moments can, indeed, bring out the best in us.