Cognitive Daily

Emotion, risk, evolution, and gender

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?

ResearchBlogging.orgThe 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


  1. #1 dr
    October 20, 2008

    Can I just keep the $15? Then I have a 100% chance of getting something.

    I guess I’m descended from the little bonobo who sneaks some on the side while the big bonobo is sleeping it off.

  2. #2 HP
    October 20, 2008

    I’m with dr. I’d prefer not to gamble the 15 dollars at all. It seems odd that that’s not a choice. And I think there should be an option (e): Spend the $15 on a round of drinks for you and two amiable companions. Enjoyable social interaction is a much bigger motivator for me than money.

    On the other hand, since the 15 dollars is a gift, all the gambles are equally risk-free, because you’re not gambling with money you would otherwise be counting on. In which case, the $300 payout would make the most sense. It’s impossible to “lose,” since the $15 dollars isn’t yours to begin with.

    And this is why no one asks me to volunteer for their study.

    (Actually, that’s not true: The Experimental Psychology program at Indiana University provided all my beer money during my senior year. But those were mostly studies of perception. And I still think my responses just added noise to their scatter plots. I’m a professional outlier.)

  3. #3 Dave Munger
    October 20, 2008

    Sorry — I was unclear. Respondents always have the choice of keeping the original $15 — I’ve updated the post to make that expicit.

    … and all participants got $5, in addition to either the $15 or their winnings, if any. Worst case scenario you still have beer money!

  4. #4 Becca
    October 20, 2008

    How do we know watching TV doesn’t make women angrier

  5. #5 Dave Munger
    October 20, 2008

    That’s a good question, Becca — actually the researchers had respondents self-report on their levels of various emotions before taking the test. It’s an important control because emotions aren’t mutually exclusive. You can be *both* angry and disgusted, and the analysis actually controlled for such confounds. I’m giving a pretty simplified version of the results here.

  6. #6 jonesy
    October 20, 2008

    Evolutionary psychology/biology is infuriating. It has the patina of science, but because nobody knows what it was actually like in prehistoric times, nor anything much about what is necessary for a trait to “evolve” or be selected for — its theories lack testability. Invariably, we get “explanations” that consist of somebody’s imagining of the past, coupled with an assertion that shores up conventional wisdom about differences between sexes and races. And these explanations are rarely even particularly logical.

    For example, nothing in the Fessler/Pillwsorth/Flamsonis theory is any more compelling or provable than these non-evolutionary possibilities:

    1. women (specifically the ones who participated in these studies) are socialized to take fewer risks than men

    2. Testosterone is correlated with increased risk-taking, for any number of reasons nobody knows or understands

    There’s no need to theorize that men “needed” aggression to “punish rivals” — after all, wouldn’t prehistoric women need aggression to protect children from predators? In actual, observable nature, few animals are as aggressive as female bears/dogs/rattlesnakes/lions/hippos with young offspring.

    And why wouldn’t men be as protective of their testicles as women of their uteruses? Nature needs both equally to reproduce the species.

    Finally, judging by the number of women whom, to this day, drink, smoke, take drugs and have unprotected sex right through their pregnancies, I don’t see much evidence of an innate guiding force that keeps a woman from engaging in any behavior that might possibly adversely affect her health in the hypothetical case of a potential pregnancy.

  7. #7 Koray
    October 20, 2008

    I hadn’t heard of the incentive to punish rivals; the one I’m more familiar with is being able to father at all before being killed in a fight, etc.

  8. #8 sungtae
    October 20, 2008

    i’d be interested to see how people respond to risk under a “happy go lucky” or “peaceful/relaxed” state of mind in addition to the negative conditions of anger or disgust

  9. #9 Fernando
    October 20, 2008

    I like Evolutionary psychology, but I partially agree with Jonesy. I think those conclusions didn’t have enough to back them. There are many other things that must be taken in consideration.

  10. #10 Tully
    October 20, 2008

    Any statisticians out there.

    I’m not, but a back-of-the-envelope calculation tells me none of the choices are any “riskier.” The average pay out for all of them is $15.

    I wonder if the results would have been different if the choices truly had varying degrees of risk.

    Side note to HP. “I’m gambling with the house’s money” is one of the ways casinos ensure that they are profitable.

  11. #11 Thea
    October 20, 2008

    The minute I saw the question in the beginning, my reaction was – I’d gamble the $15. I didn’t have them before they were given to me. So if I lose them, I’d be in the same situation as before. But if I risk them, I still have a chance to win a lot more. So in both situations I’d be ok – I won’t be losing anything… Hm… and I am a woman 😉

  12. #12 efnord
    October 20, 2008

    “The researchers say” shoulda read ” The researchers conjecture”, I think.

  13. #13 bg
    October 20, 2008

    Oh god give me a freaking break. I really hate evolutionary psychology. What a crock. You really want me to believe that because I have babies I’m meek and talk a lot and never fight back? Not even close! I have read so many of these papers and it’s always the same insulting conclusions. Try incorporating a few current cultural influences in your conclusions for a change. It’s appalling that someone would try to attribute every current social aspect we have to cavemen (and cavewomen.) [this is not aimed at CogDaily…just hacks like Buss]

  14. #14 Stephen
    October 21, 2008

    I’d gamble the money on the highest risk, highest return in this experiment – after all $15 is nothing, but $300 will actually buy something useful…

  15. #15 ringo
    October 21, 2008

    0dd, the $300 payoff was the only bet I was willing to make.

    (female, rarely risk-averse, $18.75 isn’t even worth the time to answer the question. They should have considered income or SES.)

  16. #16 Felicia Gilljam
    October 21, 2008


    Finally, judging by the number of women whom, to this day, drink, smoke, take drugs and have unprotected sex right through their pregnancies, I don’t see much evidence of an innate guiding force that keeps a woman from engaging in any behavior that might possibly adversely affect her health in the hypothetical case of a potential pregnancy

    Perhaps your aversion to evolutionary psychology is because you haven’t understood it? Evolutionary psychology doesn’t predict that women should avoid behaviour that hasn’t been a significant risk factor in their evolution. All of what you mention is new cultural phenomena. We don’t avoid them despite the danger for the same reason we don’t avoid cars, even though they’re much more dangerous than spiders or snakes – which people DO naturally avoid. Is it really that hard to see the case here?


    You really want me to believe that because I have babies I’m meek and talk a lot and never fight back? Not even close! I have read so many of these papers and it’s always the same insulting conclusions.

    Whoa, talk about taking things too personally. Biologists generalise, otherwise we couldn’t say anything about anything. I’m by no means a “typical” woman in many ways, but I don’t find these conclusions insulting. There are differences in how the average man and woman will react to the world, this is perfectly understandable and I would in fact think it was really weird if it was any other way. We are a species that exhibits sexual dimorphism, do you seriously expect that dimorphism to be purely physical?

    I don’t get why results like these make people so angry. It’s fine to criticise methodology or whatever, but to reject the science out of hand simply because you don’t like the idea that behavioural dispositions can be influenced by biology is just weird. I thought the study was interesting, but as always, far more data is needed.

  17. #17 Aaron
    October 21, 2008

    I don’t understand why, if it is in the best interest of women to avoid disgusting and infectious looking things, that it isn’t in the best interest for men to avoid BEING disgusting and infectious looking things? If a man wants to reproduce, he needs a woman.

    Thus, shouldn’t the likelihood of avoiding disgusting and infectious looking things be the same for both men and women?

  18. #18 curious
    October 21, 2008

    a big HELL’s YEAH to jonesy and bg. their actual data/results are interesting and worthy of publication on a stand-alone basis, but then they had to go and ruin it all with these moronic, untestable caveman fables. gag.

    note to the study authors: if fiction is your thing, try novels. kthx.

  19. #19 bg
    October 21, 2008

    Felicia, I am a biologist, and I understand your point about generalizations. However, generalizing that a particular observed behavior is due to measured cell activity or hormonal levels over an existing population is quite a far cry from conjecture over behavior of ancestors that can never be measured or observed. It’s all guess-work and I have yet to find an evolutionary psychologist that accounts for modern cultural influences in their work. They don’t even specify which part of evolution this behavior comes from, which ‘ancestor’ we inherited these traits from. Please post links if you know of papers that include this key piece of data. I would be very interested to read them. What I’ve read so far is either extremely biased or just making things up about what they *think* the past cultures might have been like. They don’t offer any evidence from fossil records or archeology. That’s not very scientific.

  20. #20 Daniel
    October 22, 2008

    It’s actually important to keep the expected value (in this case $15) constant, so this way we’re measuring only an individual’s appetite for risk.

    I think the experiment is more interesting if you tell the person they’ve been given $200 rather than $15, since the former is more meaningful to most. I personally chose to take the biggest gamble simply because the winnings from all the other bets seemed like trivial amounts of money, and I’m not a particularly risk-prone person.

  21. #21 Daniel
    October 22, 2008


    The idea that betting money that’s been given to you is not taking a risk doesn’t make sense. $15 that you found on the sidewalk buys just as much stuff as $15 you earned on a job. Once you have the money, it makes no difference how you got it.

  22. #22 hallidite
    October 22, 2008

    Daniel, I have participated in many university experiments, and to me, the money there doesn’t feel like money I’ve earned. It feels like a game, like play-money. It feels much much lighter than the real stuff. E.g. recently I participated in an economics gambling game where I figured out the winning formula pretty frickin’ quickly (which in a nutshell was to simply not bid, because you couldn’t ever lose that way; your money steadily stockpiled). However I got *bored* and I bid anyway – to see what screen popped up when I won, to see what it was like to lose, to finish the betting round quickly so that I could go home, and (primarily) to goad other players into bidding costly amounts. I wouldn’t waste my ‘real’ money like that – I wouldn’t even put a dollar in a pokie machine (er… pokies are a huge issue where I live; they are everywhere). It’s like when I found some money on the street once. I totally spent it on an ice-cream cake with pictures of indiana jones on it, instead of buying bus tickets. Maybe that’s just me?

    My ev-psych just story is this: evolutionary psychologists had to develop smaller brains in order to make themselves appear less of a threat to the real scientists and thus continue successfully reproducing (or, in the case of gay ev psychs, indoctrinating children), and because learning to think critically took too much time away from fighting sabre-tooths. The ev psychologists formed a ‘niche’ wherein smaller brains and less-developed arguments allowed them to proliferate.

  23. #23 Mary Ann
    October 25, 2008

    I am keeping the $15.00. As Daniel stated, “$15.00 that you found on the sidewalk buys just as much stuff as $15.00 you earned on a job. Once you have the money, it makes no difference how you got it. “

  24. #24 Mary
    October 28, 2008

    The $15 you earned on the job is part of your budget. It’s probably already spent, in some sense. Most of the regular income you get, you spend pretty much the same way, every pay period. But $15 found on the sidewalk, or handed to you by a stranger, is outside the usual budget rules. You can spend it on something frivolous, knowing you’ll still have enough money to buy all the things you normally buy. Or you can lose it, and know you’ll still have enough.

    I bet there’s an even stronger correlation to income than to gender, if they bothered to factor that in. If you’re broke, $15 from out of nowhere is enough for a rare meal out, or a movie on a big screen, or a couple of drinks at a bar, or a really good sixpack of beer, instead of the cheap crap. If you’re making good money and can afford all that stuff anyway, then yeah, go for the $300. (The middle choices just seem pointless to me. Does anyone really choose those?)

    How risky a $15 bet is depends on how much of a margin you normally have, after paying rent and food… What if the choice were $1,500 with the chance to win 30,000?

    Incidentally, this is sort of the reason I’ve decided not to worry about all of these studies linking various behaviors with gender. Because, yep, behavior and mood probably do have something to do with hormones. But we’ve seen you can also influence people’s behavior by having them hold something warm as opposed to something cold, by putting them in bright light or in the dark, by having them write stories about being angry or about being relaxed, by showing them different pictures, by talking to them in the morning vs. in the evening, hungry or full… In short, so many things influence our behavior and our mood that it all becomes noise. I don’t believe these kinds of differences in gender are really any more important than differences in behavior due to blood sugar levels. Women are less inclined to take risks? Probably so are people wearing warmer clothes. (I made that one up, but I really wouldn’t be surprised…) Who cares?

New comments have been disabled.