The study appeared online July 30 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Could women have been more likely to stay in their rooms during a disaster or less likely to scramble for lifeboats? Study co-author Erixson doubts it, although he said restrictive clothing and lack of swimming skills could have affected women's survival until fairly recently.
As for why the research matters, Erixson said it's important to understand how people act in life-and-death situations. "Research about how people behave under extreme stress and danger is scarce," he said, and could be helpful to those who design ships.
Paul Zak, chair of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University, in California, questioned the findings, saying they provide "almost no insight" into why people acted the way they did during the sinkings. "Personality traits matter here, as does reaction to stress," he said. "The key question they cannot answer is: Which individuals choose to help others rather than save themselves? Why did they do this, and what were their reasons? For example, after 9/11 there were countless individual stories of helping others at extreme costs, and there was the same thing in the Aurora theater shooting."
Zak said the dictates of biology and his own research suggest that men who had children would support the idea of "woman and children first," while men and women without kids wouldn't. "Think of your own life -- if your wife and kids were on a ship going down, all your instincts would be to save them first. The fewer genes I share with you, the less likely I am to sacrifice to help you."
Still, heroes exist who help others not related to them at their own expense. Previous research has looked into "heroes" who save others and found that they tend to b
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