ANXIETY
August 11, 2011

Risky Business

Who is more afraid of taking risks: men, women or teens? Well, it depends on the situation.

When it comes to taking risks, who takes more? Men, women, or adolescents? The answer may not be as cut and dried as you think. Conventional wisdom holds that women are less likely to take risks than men, and adolescents notoriously plunge into a situation without contemplating the consequences. As new research points out, that may not be the case. In fact, it's complicated.

When it comes to finances, men are willing to take more risks. When it comes to social situations, women take more risks.

Study co-authors Bernd Figner of Columbia University and the University of Amsterdam, and Elke Weber of Columbia University found that risk-taking behavior depends on the situation, not the gender or age of the person. For example, when it comes to finances, men are willing to take more risks. When it comes to social situations, women take more risks. Social risks includes things like starting a new career later in life or speaking one's mind about an unpopular issue at work.

Men and women seem to perceive risks differently and that difference in perception may be due to their familiarity with different situations. According to Figner, those who have more experience with a risky situation may perceive it to be less risky, and differences in how males and females experience the world during their childhood may make them more or less comfortable with different kinds of risks.

While adolescents are usually typified as engaging in risky behavior, psychological scientists have found that in lab tests, adolescents are cautious. Emotion is the key difference, though, between a lab setting and the real world. Figner said that in experiments where adolescents' emotions were strongly triggered, they took bigger risks. Adolescents aren't the only ones whose risk-taking decisions are triggered by emotion. Emotion can affect decisions about taking risks in all age groups.

Much of the current knowledge about risk-taking comes from lab studies where people are asked to choose between a guaranteed amount of money or gamble for a larger amount, but that kind of decision isn't the same as the everyday decisions people are called on to make, i.e. whether to drive faster than the speed limit or wear a seat belt. Research performed in the past decade or so has found that people take different risks in different situations.

The study will be published in the August issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

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