You’re given $15. Which of these bets would you gamble your $15 on?
- An 80 percent chance of winning $18.75
- A 40 percent chance of winning $37.50
- A 20 percent chance of winning $75
- A 5 percent chance of $300
Or would you just keep the original $15?
The answer, it turns out, depends on your emotional state — and your gender. We’ve discussed before how emotion can affect risk-taking: Fearful people, for example, tend to be less willing to take risks, while angry people seem more willing to. But what if the same emotion led to different risk reactions in different people?
It might actually make perfect sense, if those different people had different goals — or, rather, if they descended from people who evolved during a time when the ideal risk-taking behavior was different for different people.
Daniel Fessler, Elizabeth Pillwsorth, and Thomas Flamson make the case that when humans evolved into their current form, conditions were different from now. Men were more likely to reproduce if they were aggressive and strong (so they could punish rivals), and women were more likely to reproduce if they were less aggressive and avoided infection (due physiological vulnerability during pregnancy). They claim that we can see the vestiges of these evolutionarily-selected traits when men and women play the gambling game described above. Their actions in the game, furthermore, would depend on their emotional state while playing the game.
Fessler’s team induced emotions in 40 men and 40 women by asking them to write about a time when they were either extremely angry or disgusted. Another group of 20 men and women (the neutral group) wrote about watching TV. Then they were told they would be given $15 and asked to consider how they would respond in each of the gambling games I mention above. Finally, the experimenter randomly chose one of the four games, played it according to the choice that had been made, and paid the participants based on the result (I would have loved to seen the response of a poor college student who won the $300 prize!).
But of course the researchers weren’t interested in who won or lost, they were interested in the choices they made, and how those choices related to gender or emotion. Here are the results of the students in the “anger” condition:
Men who had written about a time when they were angry made significantly more gambles than men who had written about the neutral topic (television). But there was no difference in risky choices taken for women in the angry versus neutral groups. The researchers say this is because men evolved to take risks like attacking rivals for mates — this increased the likelihood of their genetic material being passed on. For women this would not be true because risking violence during pregnancy could result in a miscarriage.
Here are the results for “disgust”:
Men took an equivalent number of risks regardless of whether they had written about something disgusting. But women who wrote about a time when they were disgusted took significantly fewer risks than women who wrote about a neutral topic. The researchers say this is because women evolved to avoid situations that might lead to an infection, which can be especially dangerous during pregnancy. Men could afford to be comparatively less averse to infections, since their genetic material could be passed on even if they were sick (or perhaps more to the point, if they got sick during the course of their partner’s pregnancy).
D FESSLER, E PILLSWORTH, T FLAMSON (2004). Angry men and disgusted women: An evolutionary approach to the influence of emotions on risk taking Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 95 (1), 107-123 DOI: 10.1016/j.obhdp.2004.06.006