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My eldest son has long been irresistibly drawn to danger. At 6 months old he rolled across the entire expanse of the living room in order to more closely inspect the drill that his father—forgivably assuming that five yards was a safe distance to place a power tool from a baby who couldn’t yet crawl—had put on the floor. On one memorable toddler playdate, within five minutes he had located the drawer of sharp kitchen knives that his little host Harry had failed to discover in his two years of life, and began juggling with its contents. At the age of 10, I left him happily engaged in the normally hazardless activity of assembling a cake batter, only to return five minutes later to discover him about to plunge a roaring hair dryer into the mixture. As he calmly explained, he had forgotten to melt the butter before adding it to the bowl, and was therefore trying to do so retroactively.

I admit that at times like these I have occasionally wondered why it was my lot in life to have a child so blasé about risk, and whether ultimately this will prove to be a blessing or a curse. On optimistic days I imagine him reaping enormous benefits: the invention of a time machine, say, after decades of dangerous experimentation. But in darker moments, I foresee much bleaker fates featuring mortuary lockers. While proponents of what I call Testosterone Rex—the idea that women are driven by biology and evolution to be cautious, and men to be daring—obviously don’t share this fascination with my firstborn and his future, they do have a strong interest in the idea of risk taking as an inherently male trait. They would regard each of my son’s perilous follies as successful manifestations of evolutionary pressures: a pitiful consolation, I can assure you, when you are trimming singed hair from your child’s bangs and hoping the other guests at the barbecue won’t ask too many questions. Economists Moshe Hoffman and Erez Yoeli recently spooled out the familiar chain of assumptions in the Rady Business Journal:

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When males take on extra risk in foraging for food, ousting rivals, and fighting over territory, they are rewarded with dozens, even hundreds of mates, and many, many babies. A worthwhile gamble! Not so for the females.

Dozens? Hundreds? Sure—if you’re a red deer, or the leader of an ancient Mongol empire. While Hoffman and Yoeli’s arguments mostly refer to the “fighting” part of Darwin’s sexual selection theory (intrasexual selection), other researchers suggest that risk taking also adds to men’s appeal as a mate; the “charming” part of Darwin’s subtheory (or intersexual selection). As psychologists Michael Baker Jr. and Jon Maner explain:

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Among men, risky behaviors have potential for displaying to potential mates characteristics such as social dominance, confidence, ambition, skill, and mental acuity, all of which are highly desired by women seeking a romantic partner.

But for women, there are no such benefits to be gained from taking risks. This is because—the authors seem to try to put it as tactfully as they can—“men tend to desire women with characteristics that signal high reproductive capacity (e.g., youth) rather than characteristics that might be signaled by risk-taking.” In other words, so long as the hair is glossy, the skin smooth, and the hip-to-waist ratio pleasing, then a cringingly low sense of self-worth, apathy, incompetence, and stupidity are relative trifles, more easily overlooked from the male perspective.

There is an element of uncertainty to everything we do.

Having drawn on a vintage version of sexual selection to claim an evolutionary imperative for male risk taking, the next obvious step is to argue that this is a major contributor to persistent sex inequalities, helping to explain why fame, fortune, and corner offices are disproportionately acquired by men. Hoffman and Yoeli, for instance, argue that:

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stocks have higher average returns than bonds, and competitive jobs can be quite lucrative. These rewards make gender differences in risk preferences one of the pre-eminent causes of gender difference in the labor market.

The reference to competitive jobs points to a related explanation for occupational inequalities also much in vogue within the economics community: competition. Competition also involves risk taking since outcomes are uncertain, and the possible gains have to be weighed against the costs of taking part and defeat. Thus:

Over the past decade, economists have become increasingly interested in investigating whether gender differences in competitiveness may help explain why labor market differences persist. If women are more reluctant to compete, then they may be less likely to seek promotions or to enter male-dominated and competitive fields.

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Although the insight will probably fail to bring excitement to your next trip to the supermarket, there is an element of uncertainty to everything we do. Risk taking, in everyday understanding, is an action that potentially enables us to achieve a desired goal or benefit, but that also brings the possibility that we will fail, or something will go wrong. As a consequence, we may lose out on something we had, or could have had for sure (the kids’ college fund, an unblemished reputation, the steady income from a government bond, a left arm) or, despite costly efforts, fail to gain something we hoped for (a date, a bulging pension fund, a prestigious promotion). It’s long been assumed that the propensity for risk taking is a stable personality trait—that is, a particular individual will consistently tend to seek, or avoid, risks in every realm of life. Indeed, for many years psychologists used measures of risk taking that added up a person’s willingness to take risks in several different domains (like health, investments, and career) to yield a single risk-taking score. Many economists, meanwhile, study risk taking by presenting participants with series of carefully designed lottery tasks, in which people choose between, say, $5 for sure or an 80 percent chance of $10. The assumption is apparently that economists can infer “the” risk-taking profile of a person from his or her selections.

The long-held belief that everyone can be neatly located at a point on a single continuum between “risk taker” and “risk avoider” fits nicely with the expectation for “a taste for competitive risk taking to be an evolved aspect of masculine psychology as a result of sexual selection.” Males, according to this view, are clustered mostly over on the risk-taking side, women on the careful end.

specific risks: Research has shown that people likely to take one sort of risk, like betting on a horse race, aren’t necessarily more likely to take another sort of risk, like skydiving or playing the stock market.

However, for decades there have been indications that risk taking isn’t a one-dimensional personality trait: Instead, there are “insurance-buying gamblers” and “skydiving wallflowers,” as one group of researchers put it. An early study of more than 500 business executives, for example, looked at their preferences across a variety of risky choices, like business and personal investments, complex financial choice dilemmas, the amount of their own wealth held in risky assets, as well as nonfinancial risks. Clearly, if risk taking were a stable personality trait, then someone who tended to take risks in one area of decision making would also tend to report being a risk taker in the other domains. Yet this simply wasn’t so. Knowing the riskiness of an executive’s personal wealth strategy, for instance, told you nothing about how he’d behave in a business investment context.

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To investigate this surprising pattern more closely, Columbia University’s Elke Weber and colleagues asked several hundred undergraduates in the United States how likely they would be to take risks in five different domains: financial, health, recreational, social, and ethical decisions. Again, a person’s risk-taking propensity didn’t follow any kind of consistent pattern across the different domains—that is, the person who would happily blow a week’s wages at the races was no more likely to leap from a bridge attached to a rubber cord, invest in speculative stock, ask their boss for a raise, have unprotected sex, or steal an additional TV cable connection, than was someone who’d as soon flush dollar bills down the toilet as put them on a horse. Researchers drew the same conclusion a few years later in a study that deliberately recruited people on the basis of their affinity to a particular kind of risk: like skydivers, smokers, casino gamblers, and members of stock-trading clubs. Once again, risk taking in one domain didn’t extend to others. So gamblers, say, unsurprisingly stood out as the most risk taking when it came to questions about betting. But they were no more risk taking than the other groups, including even a group of health-risk-averse gym members, when it came to questions about recreational or investment risks.

What on first inspection seemed like a sex difference was actually a difference between white males and everyone else.

To see the problem this creates for the idea of risk taking as an essential masculine trait, ask yourself which group are the “real” men, or show a properly evolved masculine psychology: the sky-divers, or the traders? That we expect Testosterone Rex to create an all-around risk taker is implicit in Hoffman and Yoeli’s remark that men are “more likely [than women] to die in a car accident while speeding in the Ferrari they bought with their stock-market earnings.” But as we’ve just seen, the reckless Ferrari driver might well prefer bonds to stocks. (That hypothetical ass probably inherited his wealth.) The pure, unadulterated daredevil no doubt exists, but such individuals are statistical exceptions to the general rule that people are fascinatingly idiosyncratic and multifaceted when it comes to risk.

So what makes someone eager to take risks in one domain, but reluctant in another? It turns out to be risk takers’ less negative perception of the risks and more positive perception of the benefits, Weber and colleagues found. The study of the skydivers, gamblers, smokers, and stock traders came to a similar conclusion. The risk takers in this study didn’t like risk per se any more than did the risk-averse gym members. Rather, they perceived greater benefits in their particular pocket of risk taking, and this explained why they took risks that others avoided, and took one kind of risk rather than another. Similarly, contra common lore, entrepreneurs don’t have a more indulgent, risk-loving attitude than do others toward the possibility of losing large sums of money; rather, they have greater confidence that everything will work out just fine.

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In fact, people are generally mildly risk-averse. This may at first seem to defy belief. However, Chancing It author Ralph Keyes drew exactly the same conclusion, based on extensive interviews about risk with people from many walks of life. One of his interviewees was the wire-walker Philippe Petit, famous for the remarkable feat of walking a wire strung a quarter of a mile high between the Twin Towers. However, Petit emphatically described himself to Keyes as “absolutely the contrary of a daredevil,” adamantly declaring that “in no way, shape or form did he consider himself to be a taker of risks.” I was reminded of this remark at an extravagant magic show I saw recently with my children. In the melodramatic final act, an escape artist was handcuffed, then lowered upside down and padlocked into a snugly fitting glass tank of cold water, armed with only a single bobby pin with which to effect his escape. As we complacently watched the proceedings from the comfort of our seats, the master of ceremonies emphasized the extreme danger of the situation. Yet clearly, the theater would have been heaving with the rush of parents clamping hands over children’s eyes if there had been even a modest possibility that an afternoon’s treat at the theater would include witnessing a man drown on stage.

The critical point here is that “the risk in a given situation is inherently subjective, varying from one individual to the next.” It’s simply not possible to assess the “objective” characteristics of a risky situation, then infer a person’s appetite for risk from the decision she or he makes. The importance of subjectivity in the perception of risks and benefits for humanity’s colorful diversity of risk taking turns out to be equally crucial for understanding sex differences. Contrary to what many might assume, women and men have similar risk attitudes, Weber and colleagues found. For the same subjectively perceived risk and benefit, they are equally likely to tempt fate. When men and women do diverge in risk-taking propensity, it is because they perceive the risks and benefits differently. So are men inherently constituted to perceive risks more positively, making them more inclined to take them? A closer look at the actual pattern of sex differences in risk taking reveals important nuances that make this unworkable as an explanation.

A good starting point is a large meta-analysis that collated studies of female/male differences in risk taking across a variety of domains (like hypothetical choices, drinking, drugs, sexual activity, and driving), and across five different age groups from middle childhood to adulthood. This analysis did indeed lead to the conclusion that males are more risk taking than females, on average. But about half of the differences were very modest, and in 20 percent of cases they were even in the “wrong” direction (that is, there was greater female risk taking). The meta-analysis also revealed changeable patterns of difference depending on the age group and the kind of risk. For example, studies of 18- to 21-year-olds found that males were a little more likely, on average, to report drinking and drug taking, and risky sexual activities. But for older adults, this sex difference was almost exactly reversed. Nor was there any obvious pattern in the effect of age on sex differences. This is surprising: If risk taking evolved to increase reproductive success, you’d presumably expect an especially clear divergence of the sexes following pubescence. The traditional view of risk taking as a masculine trait therefore requires revision, the researchers concluded, in the face of evidence that “risk taking … does not seem to manifest itself in a simple or constant way across ages or contexts.”

The pure, unadulterated daredevil no doubt exists, but such individuals are statistical exceptions to the general rule.

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Indeed, there are already documented exceptions to the notion of risk taking as a masculine trait. A number of studies have found that women are at least as willing as men to take social risks (like admitting that their tastes are different from those of their friends, or disagreeing with their father on a major issue). Women were also found to be more likely than men to report that they would take risks in situations in which there was a small chance of benefit for a small fixed cost (such as trying to sell an already-written screenplay to a Hollywood studio, or calling a radio station running a promotion in which the 12th caller receives money). So why do perceptions of risks and benefits apparently differ between the sexes in some realms but not others? One obvious answer is that some activities—like unprotected sex or excessive drinking—may actually be objectively more risky for females. Risk researchers have also found that both knowledge and familiarity in a particular domain reduces perceptions of risk. Plausibly, men may tend to be relatively more knowledgeable or familiar with some of the risky activities that tend to feature in surveys (like sports betting, financial investments, and motorcycle riding).

The point is that an “unruly amalgam of things” underlies choices, as Harvard University legal scholar Cass Sunstein puts it: “aspirations, tastes, physical states, responses to existing roles and norms, values, judgments, emotions, drives, beliefs, whims.” And so, we’re not only sensitive to the material benefits and costs when we make choices, Sunstein argues, but also to the less tangible effects a particular choice could have on self-concept and reputation. In a gendered world, these impacts are inevitably different for females and males. (One obvious example of risk imbalance involves an infamous experiment in which male and female college students were asked by a complete stranger of the opposite sex, “Would you go to bed with me tonight?” Unsurprisingly, more men agreed.)

Another striking demonstration comes from research investigating the risks people perceive from technological, lifestyle, and environmental hazards (like nuclear power, smoking, and ozone depletion).

a thin line: Risk assessment is highly dependent upon the person and the situation—most people tend to avoid what they view as high-risk situations. Philippe Petit, who walked a wire strung a quarter of a mile high between the Twin Towers, described himself as “absolutely the contrary of a daredevil.”
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These studies routinely find that women perceive higher risks to themselves, family, and society from such hazards. For instance, James Flynn and colleagues surveyed more than 1,500 U.S. households and found that women on average perceived higher risks across the board. The Testosterone Rex explanation of this would be that women, as the nurturers of precious offspring, have evolved to be more cautious about threats to physical health. However, Flynn and colleagues then subdivided the sample by ethnicity as well as sex, and discovered that one subgroup stood out from all the rest. Society seemed a significantly safer place to white males than it did to all other groups, including nonwhite men. What on first inspection seemed like a sex difference was actually a difference between white males and everyone else.

Flynn and colleagues then established that it was a particular subset of white males who were particularly cavalier about risks: those who, in response to the social justice movement’s currently fashionable suggestion to “check your privilege,” would take significantly longer than others to complete the task. These men were well educated, rich, and politically conservative, as well as more trusting of institutions and authorities, and opposed to a “power to the people” view of the world. A number of studies have now replicated this so-called “white male effect” with other large U.S. samples, and the research points to it being “not so much a ‘white male effect’ as a ‘white hierarchical and individualistic male effect.’ ”

Interestingly, a recent study conducted in the more socially egalitarian and gender-equal Sweden failed to find the “white male effect.” This national survey of nearly 1,500 households found that, all else being equal—and in stark contrast with the U.S. data—Swedish men and women had very similar perceptions of lifestyle, environmental, technological, health, and social risks. The survey found instead just a “white effect,” with people from foreign backgrounds, who are subject to social disenfranchisement and discrimination, perceiving risks as higher than did native Swedes.

Women in counterstereotypical leadership roles are judged more harshly than men when risky decisions don’t work out.

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In trying to understand how social place and identity can affect risk perception in such a marked way, it’s helpful to know that people often use their feelings as a guide to the risk-benefit trade-off. The more positively we feel about something—whether it’s unpasteurized French cheese, vaccinations, or abortion—the more we tend to minimize the risks and play up the benefits. Conversely, if we feel antipathy toward an activity or hazard, we “tend to judge the opposite—high risk and low benefit.” Political world-view is a potent source of strong emotions about risky hazards, and it may be that people perceive risk in ways that protect their social identities, roles, and status: “Perhaps white males see less risk in the world because they create, manage, control, and benefit from so much of it. Perhaps women and non-white men see the world as more dangerous because in many ways they are more vulnerable, because they benefit less from many of its technologies and institutions, and because they have less power and control,” suggests Flynn.

This point was neatly demonstrated by some statistical fun, inspired by Nelson’s insight that we tend to think risk, think male. Yale Law School academic Dan Kahan showed that, when asked about the risks to human health, safety, or prosperity arising from high tax rates for business, now it was the women’s and minority men’s turn to be sanguine. This, he notes, beautifully illustrates Nelson’s point:

It confirms that men are more risk tolerant than women only if some unexamined premise about what counts as a “risk” excludes from assessment the sorts of things that scare the pants off of white men (or at least hierarchical, individualistic ones).

The white male effect in the U.S., viewed alongside the similar risk perceptions of native Swedish men and women, suggests that it can at least sometimes be the different social place, identities, and experiences of men and women in the world, rather than some enduring dissimilarity of biology, that underlie sex differences in risk perception. This is a vital point since, as we’ve seen, it is these subjective perceptions that underlie sex differences in risk taking. The idea that women have evolved to be biologically predisposed to perceive greater risks to health is intuitively plausible, but appears to be simply wrong. As the researchers who first identified the white male effect point out: “Biological factors should apply to nonwhite men and women as well as to white people.”

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Risky lessons: Gender norms affecting our understanding of risk begin being taught early in life.ESB Professional / Shutterstock

No less importantly, social identities come in a package that includes social norms. These norms, as Sunstein has emphasized, play a crucial role in our decision making. Gender, of course, is a rich source of norms that apply differently to males and females, with some behaviors more strongly expected of one sex, and others more strongly censured. For example, there is a stronger expectation of women to “be nice” than there is of men. When women violate this norm in a workplace setting (by behaving in domineering ways or negotiating for better remuneration and conditions, for instance) they encounter backlash from others, who become less willing to work with them, and like them less. This means that statements that men “are more likely to bargain aggressively for their starting salaries” need some unpacking. If so, is it really because women are intrinsically risk averse, or care less about money? Or is it because there is a violation of feminine norms involved in bargaining aggressively in one’s own self-interest, and so women quite accurately intuit a less favorable balance of benefits and risks from doing so?

On the first point, research has found that a sex difference in negotiating for bigger pay (in a lab task) can be eliminated simply by framing exactly the same behavior in a way that’s more in keeping with feminine norms of politeness: “asking,” rather than negotiating. As the authors point out, “the term negotiation is not gender-neutral.” And regarding the second point, does violating those norms yield the same benefits? One study found that although top-flight female MBA students were just as likely as their male counterparts to negotiate their initial post-course salary, the financial payoff for them was less. It’s not hard to imagine those women being less likely to negotiate in the future, but because of the anticipation of less reward rather than an evolved disinclination to take risks.

In many domains, gender norms tend to favor male risk taking, which is a norm of masculinity and seen as a more important trait for men than for women. This means that, in addition to material gains, taking risks may often bring greater reputational benefits or smaller costs: Women in counterstereotypical leadership roles are judged more harshly than men when risky decisions don’t work out. Underscoring the importance of Sunstein’s unruly amalgam, both men and women seem to be responsive to cultural information about how their risk-taking behavior will be perceived by others.

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In one study, for instance, single men presented with a newspaper article claiming that women found risk taking unattractive in partners subsequently made less risky choices in a lab task administered by a female experimenter (compared with men who’d read a stereotype-consistent article). Or consider a recent study of young Chinese women and men, who played a risk-taking game either privately or while being were observed by an attractive person of the other sex. In China, the authors argue, the ideal of womanhood strongly precludes risk taking, valuing instead those who are “timid, reserved, shy, obedient, unassertive, humble, attentive, respectful, and, above all, chaste.” In contrast with this feminine ideal, Chinese women were every bit as risk taking as the men when unobserved. But in line with gender norms, men increased their risk taking when supposedly observed by an attractive other-sex observer, while women decreased it. Some research teams have acknowledged this minor devastation of a pet hypothesis with good grace, accepting that the proposal that men have evolved to display risky behavior in order to attract females “does not account for the observed similarities between men and women” and “offers little explanation … for men’s preference for risk-takers.” Summarizing this “picture of overall similarity between the sexes,” while at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Andreas Wilke and colleagues suggested instead:

that men and women learn to value the same traits for non-adaptive reasons (e.g., a cultural norm) or that the same sort of risk taking might (at least in societies with male investment comparable to female levels) be a reliable cue to quality for both sexes

In other words, maybe there isn’t anything so special about male risk taking, after all.

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Writing in the Financial Times about our supposedly admiring attitudes toward those who take big financial risks, columnist John Kay draws direct links to our Stone Age past, contrasting “prudent hunters” who peered about anxiously for dangerous animals and “stayed at home when it was too dangerous,” with more courageous hunters who “chose not to buy or exercise these options” and therefore “took more risks and caught more prey.” Lest there be any doubt in readers’ minds as to which sex it was that won admiration with their daring, Kay then rhetorically asks, “Were the young women of the tribe more impressed when the cautious described their uneventful days, or when the bold recalled their heroic escape from danger?” For some reason, Kay omits asking readers to consider how the women would have appreciated the conversation of hunters whose throats had been ripped out by wild animals.

We are now a long way from the bundle of assumptions packed into this familiar vignette. Risk taking is not a stable personality trait, allowing us to assume that the person who would willingly take the physical risks of hunting (or white-water rafting or skydiving) would be a fearless CEO or trader. Nor is risk taking something that only men do, or that only women are drawn to in a potential partner. Meanwhile, the growing evidence that females do compete at equal rates to men when the nature of the task seems to authorize it, and that girls and women from populations further afield than the typical Western samples are no less eager than males to compete, undermines assumptions that this is an “essential” sex difference.

What does this mean for assumptions of “testosterone-fueled” male risk taking? From the old understanding of risk taking as a masculine trait, sex differences in testosterone is an intuitive, obvious, and common explanation. But the shape and pattern of sex differences defies explanations in terms of a single, powerful cause that splits the sexes.

As I was editing this piece, a survey of more than 3,500 Australian surgeons revealed a culture rife with bullying, discrimination, and sexual harassment, against women especially (although men weren’t untouched either). To give you a flavor of professional life as a woman in this field, female trainees and junior surgeons “reported feeling obliged to give their supervisors sexual favours to keep their jobs”; endured flagrantly illegal hostility toward the notion of combining career with motherhood; contended with “boys’ clubs”; and experienced entrenched sexism at all levels and “a culture of fear and reprisal, with known bullies in senior positions seen as untouchable.” I came back to this chapter on the very day that news broke in the state of Victoria, Australia, where I live, of a Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission report revealing that sexual discrimination and harassment is also shockingly prevalent in the Victorian Police, which unlawfully failed to provide an equal and safe working environment.

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I understand that attempts to identify the psychological factors that underlie sex inequalities in the workplace are well-meaning. And, of course, we shouldn’t shy away from naming (supposedly) politically unpalatable causes of those inequalities. But when you consider the women who enter and persist in highly competitive and risky occupations like surgery and policing—despite the odds stacked against them by largely unfettered sex discrimination and harassment—casual scholarly suggestions that women are relatively few in number, particularly in the higher echelons, because they’re less geared to compete in the workplace, start to seem almost offensive.

Testosterone Rex implicitly blames women for their lower salary and status, distracting attention away from the “unruly amalgam” of gendered influences—the norms, beliefs, rewards, inequalities, experiences, and, let’s not forget, punishment by those who seek to protect their turf from lower-status outsiders—that unevenly tip the cost-benefit scales.

Cordelia Fine is an associate professor of the history and philosophy of science at the University of Melbourne, and the author of Delusions of Gender and A Mind of Its Own.

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Reprinted from Testosterone Rex by Cordelia Fine. Copyright © 2017 by Cordelia Fine. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

Lead image credit: Melis / Shutterstock

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