Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Stress turns men into risk-takers, while women play it safe

This is a rare opinion for me, but I tend to see this as an evolutionary holdover from our distant past (which is probably is stronger in guys who grow up playing sports). Men were the members of the tribe who fought other tribes, who hunted animals that could sometimes kill them, and who sometimes had to fight other men for sexual access. This requires acting in the moment without a lot of deliberation.

In essence, men are taking more risks because they are operating in a gut-level pre-conscious mode, and at this level the prefrontal cortex is not engaged, so there is little or no consideration of possible negative outcomes. This was essential 10,00 years ago - not so much now.

The women, on the other hand, seem to be deliberating, which allows them to consider outcomes, making them much less likely to take risks. From an evolutionary perspective, women needed to be deliberative about choosing fathers for their children, as well as playing the interpersonal politics of tribal life. It would seem women have maintained these skills over the centuries - and while men have always had that capability, it was not until we became less nomadic with the rise of agriculture that men became more deliberative. It's interesting that men still retain this tendency under stress to take more risks.

Here is the abstract:

Risk and Reward Are Processed Differently in Decisions Made Under Stress


Years of research have shown that stress influences cognition. Most of this research has focused on how stress affects memory and the hippocampus. However, stress also affects other regions involved in cognitive and emotional processing, including the prefrontal cortex, striatum, and insula. New research examining the impact of stress on decision processes reveals two consistent findings. First, acute stress enhances selection of previously rewarding outcomes but impairs avoidance of previously negative outcomes, possibly due to stress-induced changes in dopamine in reward-processing brain regions. Second, stress amplifies gender differences in strategies used during risky decisions, as males take more risk and females take less risk under stress. These gender differences in behavior are associated with differences in activity in the insula and dorsal striatum, brain regions involved in computing risk and preparing to take action.
The full article is behind a paywall, so it's not available. Here is a pretty lame summary from the Toronto Star.

Stress turns men into risk-takers, while women play it safe

Published On Thu Mar 01 2012 | Debra Black

Stress increases the differences in how men and women think about risk, according to a newly published article in Current Directions in Psychological Science.

The article reviewed a number of previous studies that looked at how stress affects people when they’re making a decision. It seems that stress affects the way people assess risk and reward.

When it comes to stress and gender there are some surprising differences, said Mara Mather, a professor of gerontology and psychology at the University of Southern California who co-wrote the paper with Nichole R. Lighthall, a PhD student in her lab.

According to Mather, when men are under stress they are willing to take more risks and make decisions at a much faster pace than women. When women are under stress they tend to take fewer risks, choose more conservatively and take much longer to decide.

These differences were most surprising for Mather. “We almost never see gender differences in our lab, but these gender differences were really striking.…In these studies we found males and females didn’t differ in laboratory tasks when they weren’t under stress. But when they were under stress they diverged.”

“Researchers originally thought about decision-making as something that is rational and cold and logical,” she said, pointing to the kinds of decision-making tools people use like a list of pros and cons.

“But it turns out emotion plays a pretty huge role in our decision making process.”

Mather and Lighthall also found in their overview that while under stress people pay more attention to the upside of a possible outcome. For example when people are put under stress — by holding their hand in ice water for a few minutes — they pay attention to positive information and discount negative feedback, Mather explained.

This means that if someone is trying to make a decision — about changing jobs for example — and is feeling stressed by it, he or she might weigh an increase in salary over a bad commute when deciding whether to take the new job, she said.

What’s really interesting to Mather is how this all relates to previous research on drug addiction and how people who were under stress found it harder to avoid consuming a drug and this often lead to relapsing.

“One thing suggested by this body of work is that under stress things that are more rewarding like having a cigarette or having a drink have more of a pull. They are even more attractive than when not under stress.”

Just why this is the case remains unclear. But Mather suggests it may have something to do with dopamine, which plays an important role in the reward circuitry of the brain. Under stress it increases.

“It’s very interesting because it indicates there is some kind of amplification in these reward processes that make reward substances feel even more rewarding,” she said.

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