In one of the more ingenious, creative, and elegant studies I've come across in a while, Bruno Frey (Zurich), David Savage (grad student, Queensland Univ. of Tech.), and Benno Torgler (Queensland Univ. of Tech.), in Behavior Under Extreme Conditions: The Titanic Disaster, exploit archival data and a quasi-natural experiment provided by the Titanic's tragic sinking to test theories about how people behave in extreme situations. An excerpted abstract follows:
"For social scientists, evidence about how people behaved as the Titanic sunk offers a quasi-natural field experiment to explore behavior under extreme conditions of life and death. A common assumption is that in such situations, self-interested reactions will predominate and social cohesion is expected to disappear. However, empirical evidence on the extent to which people in the throes of a disaster react with self-regarding or with other-regarding behavior is scanty. The sinking of the Titanic posed a life-or-death situation for its passengers. The Titanic carried only 20 lifeboats, which could accommodate about half the people aboard, and deck officers exacerbated the shortage by launching lifeboats that were partially empty. Failure to secure a seat in a lifeboat virtually guaranteed death. We have collected individual-level data on the passengers and crew on the Titanic, which allow us to analyze some specific questions: Did physical strength (being male and in prime age) or social status (being a first- or second-class passenger) raise the survival chance? Was it favorable for survival to travel alone or in company? Does one's role or function (being a crew member or a passenger) affect the probability of survival? Do social norms, such as "Women and children first!" have any effect? Does nationality affect the chance of survival? We also explore whether the time from impact to sinking might matter by comparing the sinking of the Titanic over nearly three hours to the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, which took only 18 minutes from when the torpedo hit the ship."