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Men and Women Gauge Risk Differently When Making Decisions

Women and menWill you choose small gains right now or bigger rewards later? Maybe most people get into the dilemma when making every decision. A recent study published in Behavioural Brain Research finds that men and women apply different strategies to make such choices: men prefer long-term gains while women focus on details and immediate rewards.

A new experiment design: Iowa Gambling Task.

Most of the previous studies on understanding what people do when immediate rewards are pitted against long-term gains use gambling games and they find no major difference in how males and females play. In this study, the researchers used an experimental setup called the Iowa Gambling Task (IGT) and discovered the large and consistent difference between men and women’s behavior: men are better at finding out the strategy that reaps the bigger gains.

In IGT, every player is given four decks of cards and asked to choose one at a time from any deck. Each card has a win or loss amount and every deck has its own unique pattern of payout. Among the four decks, two contain card that dole out large or frequent rewards, however, consistently choosing cards from them results in losses in the long run; while the other two decks offer a modest amount of cash each win but less loss over time, and hence they provide long-term payoffs for players who choose from them most frequently. Also, these patterns are obscured carefully so the winning strategy is not very obvious.

The results published in February in Behavioural Brain Research reveals that males focus on the big picture and watch their total gains and quickly home in on which of the decks will lead to gains in the long term. On the contrary, women focus on details like the frequencies of wins and losses for a specific deck, but they usually miss the overall impact that each deck has on their total balance. In addition, women are sensitive to losses and tend to switch to another deck as soon as they are pinged with a setback, and this behavior makes it much more difficult for them to identify the prize deck.

The study also finds that men and women’s different strategies reflect underlying difference in activation in the orbitofrontal cortex, which is a region involved in decision making and the corresponding expectation of the positive and negative consequences. During the experiment, women have more activity in the medial part of the region, involved in immediate gains and regular patterns, whereas preferentially, men engage the top, dorsal area, implicated in long-term payoffs and irregular patterns.

Men are advantageous? Not always.

Does the above-mentioned result suggest that men are always advantageous in decision making? To answer this question, Ruud van den Bos, the lead author and a neurobiologist at Utrecht University in the Netherlands notes: “People may think women make errors during the tasks, but it is more that they are gathering information.” Women’s focus on details makes them more attuned to changes. For instance, if the rules of wins and losses for the decks were changed in the middle of the task, women are more likely to clue in to the new patterns faster than men. He also emphasizes that the IGT is designed in a way that the long-term strategy is best, however, in decision making processes where knowing the details counts, females might beat males.

Since real decision making is much more complicated than lab setups, van den Bos again emphasizes that either strategy has its own advantage; both of them are necessary and useful in everyday life. Moreover, he points out that even in the IGT game, some women perform like men, and vice versa. When it comes to male- and female-typical behaviors, the dividing line is usually blurry. Talking about the significance of the study, van den Bos says: “By disentangling the biological factors from the societal, we can learn how differences can be switched into advantages.”

Source: Scientific American