Is it true that men are more likely to be daring and risk-takers? According to a new study, they are, and it has a lot to do with how their brains are wired. According to HSE University researchers, certain brain rhythms reveal how men and women differ in their risk attitudes.
Men are more likely than women to take risks
This finding has been replicated in a number of studies over the years, with researchers citing economic and evolutionary factors as explanations. Mara Mather and Nichole R. Lighthall discovered that gender differences are amplified even more under stress in a recent study. Male risk-taking increases under stress, whereas female risk-taking decreases under stress. One reason is that there are gender differences in brain activity involved in risk computation and action planning. Given the stressful nature of our modern work lives, this appears to be an important discovery. In these scenarios, are men potentially too reckless and women potentially too cautious? What are the consequences? One implication is that, under stress, men and women who work together make better risk-taking decisions than either gender alone.
The team discovered, in collaboration with researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, that theta rhythm in the brain’s anterior cingulate cortex plays a significant role in whether someone is more or less likely to take a risk.
Determining the appropriate frequency for risk-taking
Neurons generate an electromagnetic field as they transmit signals in the brain, according to scientists. Because of the large number of neurons, these fields are strong enough for researchers to record using electroencephalography (or an EEG scan). These tests produce a recording of the brain’s electrical activity, which scientists categorise into different frequency bands — similar to the stations on a car radio.
Brain scans reveal distinctions between men and women.
The authors of the new study examined 35 people, 15 of whom were women. A magnetoencephalography scan was used on each participant to examine their brain’s magnetic fields. They also took part in three tests, including one risky experiment with prize boxes.
This test required the group to choose several mystery boxes from a pile of 100 boxes, each containing a cash prize. However, one of these boxes also contained a “bomb,” which would destroy the contestant’s entire winnings. The other two tests were questionnaires that assessed self-control and risk-taking ability.
Researchers discovered that men have a greater appetite for risk in the box test. Men chose 48 boxes on average, while women chose only 40. Both men and women chose fewer boxes on their first try, but men risked significantly more (44) than women (31). According to the questionnaires, men appear to be more optimistic about the outcomes of the risks they take.
Using brain scans, the researchers discovered a link between frontal theta asymmetry and the number of boxes selected in women. Overall, the strength of these frontal theta rhythms and the oscillations (back and forth movement) in the anterior cingulate cortex were related to the box game results.
Do hormones play a role in risk as well?
Along with theta rhythms, researchers believe that other gender differences, such as testosterone levels, influence risk-taking behaviour.
“Gender differences in weighing the potential consequences of decisions may not only affect risk-taking, but also reflect a more fundamental process of emotional responsiveness to environmental stimuli. We speculate that such hormonal regulation differences may influence the prevalence of depression, anxiety, and other clinical conditions in women, and we will continue to investigate this,” says lead author Maria Azanova in a university release.