Men and women make very different decisions under pressure and this research as reported in this article from the Guardian explains some of the reasons how and why.
Mara Mather and researchers at the University of Southern California were curious to see if stress changes how people make decisions. They asked subjects to play a computer game: the goal was to make as much money as they could by inflating virtual balloons. As the animated balloon got bigger, you won more money. You could cash out at any time. If a balloon exploded, if you went one pump too far, then you received no cash for that popped balloon – and you couldn’t predict how many pumps it would take: it was entirely random.
Did men and women behave all that differently in the game? Not when they were relaxed. But add stress to the equation and we see something different. Researchers asked subjects to hold their hand in painfully cold water to raise their heart rate and blood pressure. Women in this stressed state stopped inflating the balloons sooner, pumping 18% less than the relaxed women – they chose to take the sure win over the higher risk. Stressed men did just the opposite. They kept pumping – in one study averaging about 50% more pumps before calling it quits.
Ruud van den Bos and his team at Radboud University have found that, under stress, men can become almost risk-hungry in the right conditions. And it’s all to do with cortisol. Unlike adrenaline – the hormone which you immediately produce in response to threat – cortisol is slowly released into the bloodstream to ensure you’ll have the energy you need to react 20 or 30 minutes later. Various studies have now found that the same chemical leads to opposite behaviours in men and women.
Imagine that you receive a note from your boss which reads: “Come and see me now.” This is not the way your boss normally operates, and you feel a rush of worry. You reach the office; they’re on the phone, so you have to wait. Finally they motion you in and explain: “My father has had a heart attack and I’m flying home. What can you take over for me?”
The research predicts that women will offer to take on those tasks they know they can do well, projects that are solidly within their skill sets. By contrast, men will be drawn to the projects with the biggest potential pay-offs, and have much less concern for whether or not they might fail.
Could the explanation lie in the brain? In another study using the balloon game, Mather’s researchers used scans to examine which parts of the brain were most active during decision-making under stress. Two brain areas responded in the exact opposite way depending on whether the brain belonged to a man or a woman: the putamen and the anterior insula. The putamen gauges whether it’s a good time to act and if it is tells the rest of the brain to: “Act, and act now.” When a person makes a risky choice, the anterior insula sends out a signal: “Damn, this is risky.”
In men the putamen and the anterior insula both went on high alert. Men were thinking, at some level, both “Act and act now” and “Damn, this is risky.” It could mean that men were having highly emotional reactions to the risky decision, contrary to the way men are usually portrayed. In contrast, women showed the opposite response: these two brain areas being markedly quieted down in female subjects. It’s as though women were, without conscious intent, thinking: “No need to rush this” and “Let’s not take risks we don’t need to.” Compared with men, they weren’t feeling the same agitated, internal pressure to make hasty, risky choices.
This has some very interesting implications for the boardroom and the workplace. Contact us for further information on managing stress and how to make the best decisions under pressure.