Whether you think of it as admirable level-headedness or a career-cramping deficit, many people take it as an article of faith that, on average, women tend to be more sober minded when it comes to risk than men. While men will dive into new schemes half-cocked, women tend to be more deliberative, thinking through the downsides and planning for negative potentialities, this common stereotype goes.

There's only one minor problem with this commonsense understanding -- it's actually based on faulty science. Women, a new study suggests, may have just as much appetite for risk as men. It's just that they take very different sorts of risks.

How many risks do you take? Depends on what you call a risk.

How do you determine whether men or women have a higher appetite for risk? For years scientists have used a standard psychological test called the Domain-Specific Risk-Taking Scale. It asks those taking it to rate how likely it is that they would engage in a list of risky behaviors, such as wagering a day's income on a high-stakes poker game, choosing a ski run that's beyond their abilities, or driving without a seatbelt.

For years men have outscored women on this measure, reaffirming conventional wisdom on the sexes. But something about these results bothered Thekla Morgenroth, a psychologists at the UK's University of Exeter. Women take risks all the time, she observed. They just weren't the risks listed on the questionnaire.

What if instead of just asking about poker and bungee jumping, researchers added questions about risks that women more typically take, Morgenroth wondered. When she went ahead and added these sorts of risks to the scale -- things like cooking an impressive but difficult dish for an important dinner party or buying a ticket from a less reliable airline -- lo and behold women suddenly seemed just as comfortable with risk as men.

Your perception of risk is probably totally biased.

Does this prove that women and men are equally adventurous? No, Morgenroth stresses. What it proves is that the tests that have been used to make claims about gender and risk up to now are biased. The results are dependent on what behaviors are included, and as Morgenroth explains to PsyPost we tend to think stereotypically male behaviors are riskier than stereotypically female ones, even when that's not true.

"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," she says. "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." Cheerleading, for instance, is objectively one of the riskiest sports when it comes to the number of serious injuries caused, but we rarely think of it that way.

The takeaway then isn't that women are actually the thrill seekers of the species. Whether there's any real difference between the sexes when it comes to risk is yet to be determined. The lesson instead is to watch out for circular reasoning.

We assume men are the bigger risk takers so we come to see stereotypically masculine behavior as riskier, reinforcing our original, faulty assumption. It's only by busting your existing biases that you can start to see the world clearly. And when you do, you'll probably notice women take a lot more risks that you previously believed.

Published on: Oct 12, 2017
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