scilogs Gender is not sex(y)

Sex Differences in Risk-Taking

from Kris Hardies, 12. November 2010, 16:37
 
After reading the second part of my plog post 'On sex and gender', someone remarked to me that "the prosperity to take risks has been shown to have biological undepinnings". (I considered the case of risk-taking as an example to illustrate that the fact that we observe different behaviours, preferences, and so on, for females and males can be attributed to the fact that they often appear in different social situations.) That person was absolutely right in pointing that out. The propensity to take risks has indeed been linked to biological things (more precisely, to genetic variation [1-6], endogenous steroids [7], and testosterone [8-9*]).

Such findings do, however, not refute the claim that risk-taking is also linked with gender, or even that it is solely linked with gender. Although incorrect, people often assume that biological differences reflect only innate factors, whereas, in fact, biological measures are influenced by many additional factors, including behaviour and experience. Thus, there is no dispute between biological and socio-cultural causes. (I will certainly come back to this issue, but there is simply no such thing as a nature-nurture dichotomy [10*]. At the recent EMBL/EMBO Science and Society Conference 'The Difference between the Sexes', Anne Fausto-Sterling specifically addressed this topic but in fact all speakers endorsed and expressed this view—I will try to come back on some of the topics that were addressed at this conference as soon as possible). 

Numerous studies have shown that (some) women are more risk-averse than (some) men (e.g. [11-12], see [13] for an overview). There are, however, various problems associated with the bulk of this research, making it impossible to conclude for sure that there is indeed a (universal) sex difference in risk-taking; let alone, to conclude that there is such a sex difference because of (innate) biological differences between male and female human beings. 
 
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WEIRD SUBJECTS

Just like most research in the behavioural sciences in general [14-15] most studies on risk-taking have been conducted with (American) undergraduates. Taking undergraduates as behavioural representatives of Homo sapiens is, however, not good science [16]. A recent (but already influential) review [15*], provocatively entitled, "The Weirdest People in the World", convincingly warns against generalizing about human beings based upon findings from particular human populations (such as undergraduates). 

With regards to risk-taking, it appears that studies using undergraduates report greater sex differences in risk preferences compared to studies in which non-college adults are used (see [13]). Moreover, such results may have more to do with the fact that sex is confounded with more direct explanatory factors, such as exposure to opportunities [17]—sex is not consistently related to risk-taking [13, 17]. It has also been noted [18-19] that the claim that women are more risk-averse is not verified for managers and professionals; such women appear willing to take just as much risks as their male counterparts (e.g. [20-21]). 

GENDER INSTEAD OF SEX

Now, what is interesting is that many of the findings from research on sex differences in risk preferences can be explained by focussing on gender instead of sex [22*]. To be more precisely, by focussing on the fact that (at least in our contemporary society) risk-taking is associated with masculinity [23]; the willingness to take risks is an important component of prescriptive stereotypes about agentic, masculine behavior [24]. 

Firstly, the observation that sex differences in risk-taking have grown smaller over time [13] can arguably be explained by women's increased endorsement of masculine-stereotyped traits [25]. Identification with masculine-stereotyped traits tends to increase risk-taking – whether the individual is a man or a woman ([26], see also [27]). Secondly, the fact that people – both men and women – overestimate the risk preference of men [28-29]. As a result men are, for example, offered high-risk assets more often than are women [28, 30-31]—in this instance people's sex-category clearly functions as a stimulus variable. Thirdly, the fact that women take fewer risks in some tasks but not in others. More specifically, women take less risks when a task is perceived as typically male (and therefore, women are stereotypically expected to perform worse than men) while they do not take less risk than men in gender-neutral tasks or female tasks. It is well-documented that the activation of gender-based stereotypes can result in stereotyped task performances and preferences (e.g. [32], see [33*] for a detailed review of the effect of stereotype threat on performance). A very recent study [34] published in the October issue of Psychological Science shows how stereotype threat indeed affects financial decision making: In the absence of stereotype threat no sex difference was found; when gender was made salient, however, women became more risk-averse (while men became less so). 
 
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[1] Cesarini, D., C. T. Dawes, M. Johannesson, P. Lichtenstein & B. Wallace (2009)Genetic Variation in Preferences for Giving and Risk Taking. Quarterly Journal of Economics 124 (2): 809–842
[2] Kreek, M. J., D. A. Nielsen, E. R. Butelman & K. S. Laforge (2005) Genetic influences on impulsivity, risk taking, stress responsivity and vulnerability to drug abuse and addiction. Nature Neuroscience 8 (11): 1450–1457
[3] Kuhnen, C. M. & J. Y. Chiao (2009) Genetic Determinants of Financial Risk Taking. PLoS ONE 4 (2): e4362 
[4] Roe, Brian E., M. R. Tilley, H. H. Gu, D. Q. Beversdorf, W. Sadee, T. C. Haab & A. C. Papp (2009) Financial and Psychological Risk Attitudes Associated with Two Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms in the Nicotine Receptor (CHRNA4) Gene. PLoS ONE 4 (8): e6704
[5] Zhong, S., S. H. Chew, E. Set, J. Zhang, H. Xue, P. C. Sham, R. P. Ebstein & S. Israel (2009) The Heritability of Attitude Toward Economic Risk. Twin Research and Human Genetics 12 (1): 103–107
[6] Zyphur, M. J., J. Narayanan, R. D. Arvey & G. J. Alexander (2009) The genetics of economic risk preferences. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making 22 (4): 367–377
[7] Coates, J. M. & J. Herbert (2008) Endogenous steroids and financial risk taking on a London trading floor. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 105(16): 6167–6172
[8] Apicella, C. L., A. Dreber, B. Campbell, P. B. Gray, M. Hoffman & A. C. Little (2008) Testosterone and financial risk preferences. Evolution and Human Behavior 29 (6): 384–390 
[9] Sapienza, P., L. Zingales & D. Maestripieri (2009) Gender differences in financial risk aversion and career choices are affected by testosterone. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 106 (36): 15268–15273
This study has been heavily criticized by Joel and Tarrasch (2010) for not providing evidence to support its conclusions.
Joel, D. & R. Tarrasch (2010) The risk of a wrong conclusion: On testosterone and gender differences in risk aversion and career choices. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 107 (5): 19
[10] This has been acknowledged by many authors such as Philip J. Corr, Diane Halpern, Shu-Chen Li, Gerald E. McClearn, Eric Turkheimer, and many others. There can be no nature without nurture; and vice versa.
[11] Fletschner, D., C. L. Anderson & A. Cullen (2010) Are Women as Likely to Take Risks and Compete? Behavioural Findings from Central Vietnam. Journal of Development Studies 46 (8): 1459–1479.
[12] Jianakoplos, N. A. & A. Bernasek (1998) Are Women More Risk Averse? Economic Inquiry 36 (4): 620–630
[13] Byrnes, J. P., D. C. Miller & W. D. Schafer (1999) Gender Differences in Risk Taking: A Meta-Analysis. Psychological Bulletin 125 (3): 367–383
[14] Peterson, R. A. (2001) On the Use of College Students in Social Science Research: Insights from a Second-Order Meta-Analysis. Journal of Consumer Research 28 (3): 450–461
[15] Henrich, J., S. J. Heine & A. Norenzayan (2010) The Weirdest People in the World? Behavioral and Brain Sciences 33 (2/3): 61–135
This review received attention in both Science and Nature.
[16] Nettle, D. (2009) Beyond Nature versus Culture: Cultural variation as an evolved characteristic. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 15 (2): 223–240
[17] Boyer, T. W. & J. P. Byrnes (2009) Adolescent risk-taking: Integrating personal, cognitive, and social aspects of judgment. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology 30 (1): 23-33
[18] Basso, F. & O. Oullier (2009) When organization meets emotions, does the socio-relational framework fail? Behavioral and Brain Sciences 32 (5): 391–392
[19] Croson, R. & U. Gneezy (2009) Gender Differences in Preferences. Journal of Economic Literature 47 (2): 448–474
[20] Atkinson, S. M., S. B. Baird & M. B. Frye (2003) Do Female Mutual Fund Managers Manage Differently? Journal of Financial Research 26 (1): 1–18.
[21] Master, R. & R. Meier (1988) Sex Differences and Risk Taking Propensity of Entrepreneurs. Journal of Small Business Management 26 (1): 31–35
[22] Most researchers have not been very interested in explaining observed sex differences in risk preferences. The existence of such differences is most of the time examined presumably because it would be of interest to the reader. 
[23] Wilson, M. & M. Daly (1985) Competitiveness, risk-taking, and violence: The young male syndrome. Ethnology and Sociobiology 6 (1): 59–73
[24] Prentice, D. A. & E. Carranza (2002) What Women and Men Should Be, Shouldn't Be, Are Allowed to Be, and Don't Have to Be: The Contents of Prescriptive Gender Stereotypes. Psychology of Women Quarterly 26 (4): 269–281
[25] Twenge, J. M. (1997) Changes in Masculine and Feminine Traits Over Time: A Meta-Analysis. Sex Roles 36 (5/6): 305–325
[26] Meier-Petzi K. & E. Penz (2008) Sex or gender? Expanding the sex-based view by introducing masculinity and femininity as predictors of financial risk taking. Journal of Economic Psychology 29 (2): 180–196 
[27] Raithel, J. (2003) Risikobezogenes Verhalten und Geschlechtsrollenorientierung im Jugendalter. Zeitschrift für Gesundheitspsychologie 11 (1): 21–28
[28] Roszkowski, M. J. & J. Grable (2005) Gender Stereotypes in Advisors' Clinical Judgments of Financial Risk Tolerance: Objects in the Mirror Are Closer than They Appear. The Journal of Behavioral Finance 6 (4): 181–191
[29] Siegrist, M., G. Cvetkovich & H. Gutscher (2002) Risk preference predictions and gender stereotypes. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 87 (1): 91–102 
[30] Eckel, C. C. & P. J. Grossman (2002) Sex Differences and Statistical Stereotyping in Attitudes toward Financial Risk. Evolution and Human Behavior 23 (4): 281–295
[31] Schubert, R., M. Brown, M. Gysler & H. W. Brachinger (1999) Gender and Economic Transactions - Financial Decision-Making: Are Women Really More Risk Averse? American Economic Review 89 (2): 381–385
[32] Spencer, S., C. Steele & D. Quinn (1999) Stereotype Threat and Women's Math Performance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 35 (1): 4–28
[33] Wheeler, C. S. &R. E. Petty (2001) The Effects of Stereotype Activation on Behavior: A Review of Possible Mechanisms. Psychological Bulletin 127 (6): 797–825
The concept of 'stereotype threat' refers to being at risk of confirming (as self-characteristic) a negative stereotype about one's group. For further information, see also: http://www.reducingstereotypethreat.org/
[34] Carr, P. & C. M. Steele (2010) Stereotype Threat Affects Financial Decision Making. Psychological Science 21 (10): 1411–1416
 



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Comments

  1. Balanus Dichotomies
    13.11.2010 | 11:56
    .
    ...but there is simply no such thing as a nature-nurture dichotomy [10*].


    ...many of the findings from research on sex differences in risk preferences can be explained by focussing on gender instead of sex [22*].

    Hm..., if there is no nature-nurture dichotomy, what's about the difference between sex and gender?

  2. Mona Albano Risk-taking and gender
    15.11.2010 | 11:44

    Gender is, strictly, a grammatical concept, e.g. whether a French noun takes the article la or le. Then people started using it as a polite word for sex. Now you seem to be taking it as a socially influenced characteristic as opposed to, say, biochemically influenced. Is that correct? If so, I'd say there's a lot of "gender" in exploratory or risk-taking behaviors. Studies have shown (sorry I can't quote them, just read about them) that girls are called back while boys are allowed to explore, so that even young girls explore only about 5/6 of the area available to them. Just knowing that has made me more likely to deliberately go further when exploring, to counteract whatever training I had. I've seen parents playing sports with male toddlers while discouraging their older female children from getting involved by yelling to "watch out for the baby" every time they wound up to kick the ball (or whatever), and of course by always sending the ball to the boy. It wouldn't take much of that to give females the message that physical activity is not for them.

  3. Mona Albano ...more
    15.11.2010 | 11:47

    I should have said, "physical activity and the risks associated with it are not for them."

    In short, I agree with you.

  4. Kris Hardies Dichotomies
    22.11.2010 | 16:59

    Thanks for your comment, Balanus

    I understand why you made that comment (although I had hoped to deconstructed the popular misconception that nature=sex/nurture=gender already a bit in my previous blog posts - apparently that's all that people picked up from the scientific debate on sex/gender).

    You may or may have not, however, noted that nowhere in my two blog postings, 'On sex and gender', I made any reference to either nature or nurture (since they can not be separated and since you can not simply equate sex with nature and gender with nurture).

    I will certainly elaborate on this issue in a future blog post, but let me say the following for now. Consider the term 'sex difference'. This term is widely used to refer to biologically determined differences between males and females ('nature'), and contrasted with environmentally determined differences between males and females ('nurture'). Such a distinction is, however, inaccurate and useless. A sex difference (that is, a difference between men and women) is not necessary the consequence of biological differences between the sexes.

  5. Kris Hardies Gender
    22.11.2010 | 17:05

    Mona Albano, thanks for your comment.

    I think you understand it correctly. In my view, the most essential thing know (in order to properly understand what gender is about) is that gender is a process (not some essential property of our selves).