Past psychology research may have underestimated risk-taking behaviors in women

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Risk-taking is typically associated with men. But new study, published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, raises questions about whether risky behavior is actually a masculine personality trait.

“I became interested in the topic of gender and risk-taking because the idea that men take more risks than women – and that this is why they are more often found in positions of power – is so widespread and often seems to go unquestioned,” explained study author Thekla Morgenroth of the University of Exeter.

“This is particularly true because there is a body of literature out there that seems to confirm this. This just didn’t seem right. Women take risks all the time. Cheerleading, for example, is a super risky sport, and there are very few male cheerleaders. So we decided to look into that.”

The researchers used a conventional measure of risk-taking, called the Domain-Specific Risk-Taking Scale, and developed their own survey with risky behaviors that were more gender-neutral or stereotypically associated with women.

An example of a conventional risk-taking behavior is betting a day’s income at a high-stake poker game, while the new survey included items such as buying a flight from a less reliable airline, getting cosmetic surgery, and cooking an impressive but difficult dish for a very important dinner party.

In two studies that surveyed a total of 238 people, the researchers found that many gender differences in risk-taking disappeared or reversed when including the new behaviors.

“I’d want people to question their assumptions about gender differences in risk-taking and also how they think about risk,” Morgenroth told PsyPost. “In one of our studies we found that people rated masculine risk-taking behaviors as more risky than feminine risk-taking behaviors, even when they were matched for how risky they were.”

“This makes clear that there is a bias – when we think of risk, we think of men and masculine behaviors, and female risk-taking is overlooked. I hope our studies help to make people more aware of this.”

The researchers believe that measures of risk-taking have overlooked many behaviors that are common among women. But they make no assertions about whether women are more, less, or equally likely to take risks as men.

“Since the paper was published, I often get questions like ‘So who takes more risks: men or women?’, but our research can’t answer this,” Morgenroth explained. “More research needs to be done to answer this question, but we hope that our studies will lead to future research being less biased than studies of the past in that they take gender norms into account and pay more attention to female risk-taking.”

“Our work has been criticized for using an unvalidated scale of female risk-taking,” Morgenroth added. “I’d like to point out that our goal wasn’t to propose a new, better risk-taking scale. That’s certainly important and would be a great thing to do in the future. However, our goal here was only to point out a shortcoming of risk-taking scales which are currently out there and demonstrate that they are biased.”

The study, “Sex, Drugs, and Reckless Driving: Are Measures Biased Toward Identifying Risk-Taking in Men?“, was also co-authored by Cordelia Fine, Michelle K. Ryan and Anna E. Genat.