Do Women … Literally … React Differently to Risk?

by Lane Wallace on June 2, 2009

A number of years ago, I overheard an adventure-sports friend trying to convince his girlfriend to take more risks snowboarding. “If you’re not falling, you’re not learning!” he argued. “If you’re not falling, you’re not getting hurt,” she replied curtly.

Clearly, the two of them had two distinctly different approaches to risk—or, at least physical risk. But why was that? Personality? Worldview? Genetics? All of those are thought to play a role (see “Adrenaline Rush” from March 29th for another take on the subject).

But what about gender? Do women approach risk—or at least physical risk—differently than men?

Quite possibly. Or at least, so say a number of studies out there. But as Shauna Stephenson lays out in a short but highly entertaining tale about mountain biking risk-taking, published in this month’s Women’s Adventure magazine, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. 

Stephenson quotes Jody Radtke, program director for the Women’s Wilderness Institute in Boulder, CO, as saying that women aren’t necessarily more risk-adverse than men. However, she says, when faced with challenging situations, men tend to produce adrenaline, which makes them pump up and, as Stephenson puts it, “run around hollering like frat boys at a kegger.” But women, when faced with a similar situation, produce something called acetycholine. Which basically … makes them want to throw up.

Consequently, because women don’t have the same chemical reward for confronting risky situations, they tend to rely on more calculated, cross-cranial decision-making before leaping into a risky endeavor. Which acts as a bit more of a check and balance to some of the other factors that go into the decision to take on risk … including group environment and pressure. (Apparently, and not surprisingly, if you are genetically more risk-tolerant, you tend to hang around people like you, and that group dynamic accentuates individuals’ existing tendencies toward taking risks.)

Not that women don’t take risks. It’s just that, according to Stephenson’s sources, they just tend to be a bit more calculating about it. So, for example, when faced with the choice between launching off a rock and leaping across a river on a mountain bike (very cool, if you get the landing right, and a big thrill in the air, but potentially very painful if you screw up …) versus finding a slightly easier crossing, a woman is more likely to seriously contemplate the odds of a perfect landing and the downside associated with getting that wrong. 

How does Stephenson’s tale of mountain biking with her male friends turn out? Read for yourself. But  here’s a hint: at the end of it, she’s inspired to make the following observation: “Why they design men’s bikes with high bars in the center, I’ll never know.”

{ 2 trackbacks }

Gender Differences « Samuel J. Scott
06.12.09 at 7:09 am
Using the Energy of Awareness
12.29.10 at 9:17 am

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Bill Pyles 06.03.09 at 7:33 pm

Certainly I know women who are pilots and race car drivers and mountain climbers who obviously take risks similar to those taken by their male counterparts in those endeavors. However, I have also wondered why most women eschew those (and other potentially life-threatening) activities and instead take their risks in other areas of their lives that are perceived as less dangerous such as choosing a profession, a house or a life-partner. I think it is interesting that you found that whereas men produce adrenaline while women produce acetycholine in challenging situations, and therefore women and men react differently to those situations, isn’t it no accident that men and women are hard-wired to respond to danger in fundamentally different ways? Are women more strategic than tactical in their thought processes? Do they look at the long view as opposed to the short-term risk and reward? Do women feel it is riskier to choose a mate than to take flying lessons? Perhaps…

2 CrankyOtter 06.06.09 at 3:32 pm

Please, FTLOG, it’s “risk averse” not “risk adverse”. Thank you.

And I’ve never understood why the high bars on bikes were for men either, once women topped wearing skirts to exercise. Maybe the men aren’t risk averse enough to prevent a completely forseeable jolt to the nads.

3 Swift Loris 06.06.09 at 3:35 pm

Stephenson quotes Jody Radtke, program director for the Women’s Wilderness Institute in Boulder, CO, as saying that women aren’t necessarily more risk-adverse than men.

I do hope Radtke said women aren’t necessarily more risk-averse than men…

4 Jim O'Sullivan 06.06.09 at 6:09 pm

Allow me to indulge a pet peeve: it’s “risk-averse,” not “risk-adverse.” Please tell Stephenson and Radtke, if either they are the source of the error.

5 jeff 06.11.09 at 11:44 am

“when faced with challenging situations, men tend to produce adrenaline, which makes them pump up and, as Stephenson puts it, “run around hollering like frat boys at a kegger.” ”

Why does she use such a sleazily stereotypical example of adrenaline-fueled male behavior? Why not men landing on the beach at Normandy, or firefighters saving someone from a fire?

I’d call her use of this example definitely sexist–is “bigoted” too strong a term?

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