We see it all the time in movies: Women and children are the first to board lifeboats, be saved from monsters destroying a city, and just about every other stressful situation as an act of chivalry. Many will argue this kind of behavior no longer exists outside Hollywood, but according to a new study out of Cambridge University’s Brain Sciences Unit and Columbia University, there may be hope yet.

The term chivalry can be traced back to medieval times. It was an umbrella term used to describe the ideal knight: courageous, honorable, and a willingness to help the weak. And while the grand gestures may be easier to come across on the big screen, there are there are modern-day chivalries, like holding open a door that can be seen. Some believe it occurs less than before, but is it completely dead?

Researchers conducted several behavioral experiments designed to test how individuals react to harming one another. The first was a variation of the popular “Trolley Dilemma,” where participants were asked if they would push a person into the path of an oncoming trolley if it meant they could save five others. The bystanders were varied, with some subjects reading about a male bystander and others a female or gender-neutral bystander. Results showed participants of both genders were more likely to sacrifice a male or gender-neutral bystander than a woman.

The second experiment had more to do with money than it did morality. Researchers promised participants the 20 British pounds they gave them could multiply up to ten times, leaving them with as much as 200 pounds. Afterwards they were introduced to several people, and participants were told that if they decided to keep all of their money, the individuals they met would be subjected to mild electric shocks. But if they sacrificed their money, the people would be spared. Again, participants were more likely to save women from a negative fate than men.

Both experiments show an aversion to harming women, a notion typically associated with chivalry. Interestingly, however, women in particularly were loath to shock other women in the second experiment.

Researchers included a third experiment that was much less subtle than the first two, simply asking participants questions that would provide insight to any chivalrous views they had. For example, scientists asked, “According to social norms, how fair is it to harm men/women?” and “On a sinking ship, whom would you save first? Men, women, or no order?” The aim of these inquiries was to understand the thought process behind the behaviors in the first two experiments. And similar to other experiments, the participants’ answers revealed an inclination to protect women and children. 

“There is indeed a gender bias in these matters: society perceives harming women as more morally unacceptable,” said co-author Dean Mobbs, an assistant professor of psychology at Columbia University, in a statement.

Some of the reasons participants gave for their answers were that women were "less tolerant of pain" and it’s not cool to harm them for personal gain. However, these ideas were not emotionally based: participants said hurting a man or a woman would be equally emotionally aversive, or something to avoid.

Source: FeldmanHall O, Dalgleish T, Evans D, Navrady L, Tedeschi E, Mobbs D. Moral Chivalry: Gender and Harm Sensitivity Predict Costly Altruism. Social Psychological & Personality Science. 2016.