You're in a ship. It's going down. Who gets saved first? Women and children, right?
Uppsala University's Mikael Elinder and the Research Institute of Industrial Economics's Oscar Erixson conclude that this is how it worked on the Titanic: 74.6 percent of women and 51.1 percent of children were saved, compared to 16.9 percent of men. But after analyzing the Titanic and 17 other maritime disasters, Elinder and Erixson found in a 2012 paper that "women and children first" is the exception, not the rule. "Taken together," they write, "our findings show that human behavior in life-and-death situations is best captured by the expression 'every man for himself.'"
What they found
Elinder and Erixson measure compliance with "women and children first" by comparing survival rates for men and women, and adults versus children, for the 18 disasters in their sample. If men are looking out for themselves, we should expect a substantially lower survival rate for women and children, given men's greater physical strength, on average. A higher survival rate for women and children suggests widespread compliance with the norm, while equal survival rates suggest it's being followed at least to some degree.
They then break out the two most-studied disasters in their sample (Titanic and the sinking of the Lusitania during World War I), leaving 16 in what they call their "main sample." Within that sample, survival rates for women were lower than for men, and survival rates for children were absolutely abysmal:
"We find that women have a survival advantage over men in only 2 of the 18 disasters: the Birkenhead and the Titanic," Elinder and Erixson write. "For 11 of the shipwrecks, we find that women have a survival disadvantage compared with men. For the remaining 5 shipwrecks, we find no clear evidence of survival differences between men and women." Crew members are also likelier to survive. The captain does not, it turns out, always go down with the ship.
Reasons for skepticism
These numbers are admittedly an imperfect proxy for what Elinder and Erixson want to measure. There's a great deal of chance involved, and it's possible that in some cases women out-survived men without widespread observance of "women and children first," just by sheer luck. Further, data on age of passengers was only available for 11 of the 18 disasters, making it harder to draw conclusions about childrens' relative survival rates.
That being said, they do control for a variety of observable factors (like whether or not passengers were in first class, their age, etc.), and use a statistical technique known as "fixed effects" to try to control for specific disasters' severity and weather conditions.
Thanks to Tyler Cowen for the pointer.