Apr 22, 2011

Learning about human behavior using data from the Titanic disaster

In a super sweet piece in the Journal of Economic Perspectives Bruno Frey and co-authors study how people behave under extreme conditions of life and death using archive data from the Titanic disaster.

They collected individual-level data on the passengers and crew on the Titanic and identified those who survived by a dummy. Regressing that dummy on a bunch of individual characteristics they found that while people in their prime were more likely to be saved, it was women—rather than men—who had a better chance of being saved. Children also had a higher chance of surviving. At the time of the disaster, the unwritten social norm of “saving women and children first” seems to have been enforced. However, they do find evidence suggesting that effects predicted using the standard homo economicus model are also important. People in their prime age drowned less often than older people. Passengers with high financial means, traveling in first class, were better able to save themselves. Crew members who had access to better informational and relational resources managed to survive more often than others aboard.

They conclude that the behavior of human beings is not random or inexplicable, but can be explored and, at least in part, explained by economic analysis. What a great use of data!

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