‘This macho advantage of speed, strength and fierceness can be exaggerated by females’ tastes. As half of a female’s fate is tied up in her sons, she may have evolved to prefer males who are stronger, faster and who have a greater appetite for risk, since they will be more likely to father sons with those advantages.’
Susan Pinker, The Sexual Paradox
‘Do you want to be safe and good, or do you want to take a chance and be great?’
Jimmy Johnson, American football coach
Up ’til now, I’ve couched most of my arguments in terms of alpha males and betas, of bad boys versus nice guys; of men’s preference for looks compared with women’s for status and resources. But every now and then, it’s useful to look at things through a different-coloured lens. And if you consider the typical behaviour of the two sexes, one of the most salient differences between them is in their attitude to risk.
Men love danger. Women don’t. At least, the willingness to undertake dangerous activites is far more common, and far more pronounced, in males than it is in females.
Men drive faster. They die more frequently in accidents. They are more likely to run red and amber lights and less likely to wear a seat belt. They get into more fights, drink more, smoke more, gamble more, experiment with drugs more, and engage in more hazardous activities like boxing and Base jumping. They tend to invest rather than save; and as children, they’re more likely to play rough than play “nicely”. (These tendencies, in fact, account for most of the difference in life expectancy between the sexes – currently 83 for women in the UK and 79 for men. It’s not so much that men are less hardy; once they’re past a certain age, they live about as long as women. Most of the disparity is down to the fact that so many men die unnaturally young, through alcoholism, violence, smoking-related illnesses and accidents. Read this Scientific American article for more.)
The vast majority of scientific research in this area agrees that men are more prone to risk than women. Here are just a few examples: Sex Differences in Judgment Processes (Wallach & Kogan, 1959); Gender Differences in Risk Assessment: Why Do Women Take Fewer Risks than Men? (Harris, Jenkins and Glaser, 2006); Both Risk and Reward are Processed Differently in Decisions Made Under Stress (Mather and Lighthall, 2012); and Geoff Trickey and So Yi Yeung’s 2012 study for the Psychological Consultancy Limited, which concluded that men are twice as likely to take risks as women. “From the scale of these findings, we concluded that risk-taking must be a distinctive feature of gender,” the authors wrote.
A recent flurry of studies have challenged this view – but all have major flaws. A 2008 survey for the Simmons School of Management, for example, claimed that women engage in high-risk behaviours just as often as men. However, its female subjects were all leading business managers. These women were not remotely representative of their sex; they were women who must already have taken significant risks in order to get where they were. (What are these geniuses planning next? To prove that women are taller than men by measuring the 100 tallest women in the world?) A 1998 study by Lori Embrey and Jonathan Fox made a similar methodological mistake; it found that high-earning women were more likely than other women to put their money in the stock market … Well, duh. How do you think they became high earners in the first place?
When a report by Germany’s Bundesbank was published in 2012, the headlines ran, “Women take bigger risks” – but what the report actually found was that the presence of women in senior roles spurred their male colleagues to take greater risks, which is not the same thing at all (more on how women affect male behaviour below).
One paper, which actually stands up to cursory scrutiny, came to a more nuanced conclusion: that men and women react differently to different kinds of risk. Men, it found, were more likely to take physical and financial risks, while women were more open to social risks (starting a new career, or sticking up for someone who’s been bullied). But even here it’s worth bearing in mind that women can afford to lose social capital more than men – it is less useful to them in the first place (since it’s not a quality men especially value in a mate), and can be won back more quickly.
Why should things be this way? As ever, there are two competing schools of thought: those who think that attitude to risk is shaped by cultural forces (role models, education, tradition), and those who believe its basis is biological.
The first strike against the cultural argument is that males take more risks than women in every culture on the planet, many of which, until recently, had had little or no contact with one another for millennia. If a behaviour is divided along gender lines the world over, it would require a gargantuan coincidence for each culture to have settled on the arrangement separately.
The second is that it’s hard to see what reasons there could be for such a state of affairs. Why does it make sense to encourage boys to be daredevils but to warn girls to play it safe? In every civilisation in the history of man? Most parents actively try to deter their daughters and sons from reckless acts. The majority of boys go off the rails despite their parents’ pleas, not because of them. How many parents do you know who instruct their pride and joy to take drugs, clamber around building sites and ride motorbikes?
Now, for most of the rest of this post, I will be talking largely about mankind historically – ie about the conditions that prevailed, and the evolutionary adaptations that came about in response to those conditions, prior to the modern era. But much of it will still be relevant today. Civilisation has only existed for a few thousand years, and man spent far more time living in caves and roaming the savannah than he has done in cities and villages. Evolution simply hasn’t had time to do much since the discovery of agriculture; fundamentally, we’re still the same creatures that hunted and gathered and wandered and murdered 20,000 years ago.
So if men’s greater propensity to take risks is biological in origin, why did it come about? You might be expecting some simplistic guff about how men had to hunt, while women gathered and nursed the children, but it’s a little more complicated than that.
For reasons I’ve described before, to do with differences in sex drive, the reduced availability of women owing to pregnancy and childcare, the scarcity of eggs relative to sperm, and the amount of time women must invest in reproduction relative to men, females throughout the animal kingdom are the gatekeepers of sex. That is to say, it tends to be males who approach females, and females who decide whether or not to proceed with mating (or whether to make mating easy for the male). The few exceptions to those rules are species, such as seahorses, where the male plays a significant parenting role.
Just think. Even today, in this largely liberal, egalitarian world, it’s still almost always the man who makes the first move in courtship. In bars, on online dating sites, even on Tinder – where anyone can proposition anyone else in a trice, in complete safety – it’s still men who initiate contact. (Some women can and do take the lead, but they’re in a tiny minority, and the objects of their advances are often put off.)
This leads to two distinct but closely related phenomena: female choice and male competition. Under the female choice system, the purest form of which is courtship display, females observe males, then select the one they consider the prime specimen, based on criteria such as size, speed, plumage, fitness and freedom from parasites. Male competition works a little more bluntly: the blokes fight, and the winner takes the spoils.
It’s not clear which system has played the greater role in the human story. There is certainly an element of male competition, as fights over mates still take place to this day, particularly in “uncivilised” tribes and commuter-belt pubs, and men are on average a little bigger than women, which in most species indicates competition. And female choice certainly contributes, as men generally approach women, and women say yay or nay, and courtship display among men – showing off expensive cars and watches, general jostling for status – is widespread. (Scientists have recently acknowledged the existence of female competition and male choice, but these seem to play a minor role.)
It doesn’t really matter, because the result is the same. Whether they are chosen or champions, some males win, big, while others lose – utterly. Polygyny is far and away the most common mating system in the animal kingdom; according to one estimate, 20% of the males on the planet account for more than 90% of all matings. Although things aren’t quite so skewed in modern humans, the evidence is that polygamy has been rife in our history too.
(If you’re not prepared to take my word on that, read my post – the relevant bit’s at the end – on ancestor bias, which shows that twice as many women have reproduced as men and gives some more snappy stats on variance in reproduction.)
For women, meanwhile, there is no ultimate victory or defeat – except in terms of the quality of the partner they end up with. Barring horrible misfortune, most of them will reproduce.
And how do men win or lose? By taking a risk. Whether they need to take out the competition, or to outwit them, or to outdo them in more indirect fashion in order to achieve the status and resources that will attract a female (or several) to them, they have to take the bull by the horns. In his book on evolution and sex, The Red Queen, Matt Ridley says: “Men have evolved to live dangerously because success in competition or battle used to lead to more or better sexual conquests and more surviving children.”
If you have any lingering doubts as to why men act like idiots, consider the following experiment conducted at the University of the Bleeding Obvious – sorry, Queensland – in 2010. Professor Bill von Hippel sent observers to watch skateboarders at a nearby skate park. They noted that the young men took more risks when they were being observed by an attractive female experimenter than when the observer was male. This increased risk-taking led to more spectacular manoeuvres (and more crashes) in front of the female observer.
Let’s look at a couple of graphs to help us think around this for a moment.
a) You’ve probably noticed the absence of numbers. These graphs aren’t supposed to be representations of any actual figures, just visualisation tools.
b) As with most of the text above, these are intended primarily as depictions of the forces acting on prehistoric humans – but probably still carry quite a lot of relevance today.
c) The female graph should ideally be a lot slimmer than the male one – ie the variance in payoff should be smaller – but it took me ages to draw those damn things and I can’t be arsed to do them again.
These graphs plot risk (x-axis) against reward (y-axis) for every human being who has ever lived. Everyone falls somewhere in the shaded area, either on the male or female grid. The x-axis represents a combination of the size and number of risks that an individual takes in a lifetime, so zero equals no risks at all, while high values of x mean many slightly risky acts (or perhaps several extremely risky ones). It’s impossible to take fewer than zero risks, so there’s nothing plotted for x < 0.
The y-axis, payoff, is, if you like, genetic legacy, or success in the mating market. You might say “Number of healthy offspring that survive to reproductive age”. The negative values on the y-axis don’t have any real meaning; essentially, a value of zero on the payoff axis means “died without reproducing”, and every negative score means “died prematurely trying”, which from an evolutionary standpoint is no worse than not trying and living childless to a ripe old age, but by most standards is less of an achievement. Thus, the larger area below x = 0 on the men’s graph reflects the greater number of deaths in combat, in accidents incurred during showing off, and from depression-related illnesses, suicide, etc.
The reason for the spread in values of x for values of y – well, that’s essentially fate, and/or skill. Every risk has (at least) two possible outcomes: success, and failure. So two different men, A and B, could undertake a task with the same level of risk – say, fighting each other over a woman – and while A is richly rewarded for his risk with victory and offspring, B dies. Man C, meanwhile, takes no risk at all, which allows him to live a peaceful life, but means that he fails to win any status or otherwise impress a mate, and he too dies childless.
A man must, if he is to secure genetic immortality, at the very least, approach one female, which carries the risk of attack from a rival (or the female). And most of the time he will probably have to do a lot more than that, such as prove himself as a reasonable hunter and secure himself halfway decent status within the tribe.
The story on the women’s graph is rather different. Woman A and B both take risks of equal magnitude; one succeeds, one fails … but the variance in outcomes is smaller. Success does not bring such great rewards, because a woman cannot have as many children as a man can. Moreover, look at Woman C. She takes no risks at all, but still receives a payoff. She never has to take a risk, because the onus is on men to approach her, to defeat rivals for her, and to persuade her of his own merits. Also, because women have historically done the lion’s share of childcare, the more children a woman has, the less it pays her to take risks, because she endangers not just her own life, but the lives of all the children she has already invested so much time in.
So whichever way you slice it, women stand to gain less from taking risks than men do. In fact, on the whole, taking risks is generally a pretty terrible idea for a woman – while for a man, it’s essential.
With such unequal forces acting on the two sexes over such long periods of time, it would be astonishing if there were not some evolutionary response.
To recap, any males who do not take risks are immediately removed from the gene pool. Some of those who do take risks die, or otherwise fail, and are also eliminated. However, those who take risks and succeed potentially earn a huge payoff: they will have large numbers of mates and even larger numbers of offspring (look up the number of living descendants of Niall of the Nine Hostages, Charlemagne and Genghis Khan). If there is any genetic component to risk-taking, it will be passed on, in spades.
Of course, initially, if the genes concerned are “sex-blind”, as most are, this bold spirit will be passed on to the great conqueror’s daughters, as well as his sons; but as we’ve seen, risk-taking in women is actively harmful to their genes’ chances of survival. Thus we now have two contrary selection pressures: for more risk-taking in men, and less in women. But if any sex-biased element of the inheritance of risk should arise, this would run rampant. That is, if there is something heritable that promotes risk-taking in men but not in women, it will spread through the population like a video of a burping hamster.
And blow me down if just such a mechanism doesn’t exist. There is no such thing as a “gene for risk”, but there are genes that govern the production of testosterone, which occurs in far greater quantities in men than in women. And testosterone, among a multitide of functions, is the risk hormone par excellence.
In a 2008 Harvard University paper, “Testosterone and financial risk preferences”, Coren L Apicella et al discovered that risk-taking (of a financial nature) correlated positively with salivary testosterone levels. A similar study in 2009 by Sapienza, Zingales and Maestripieri came to the same conclusion. Testosterone has been shown to enhance the motivation for competition and dominance, to reduce fear, to change the balance between sensitivity to punishment and reward, and is strongly associated with risky behaviour such as gambling and alcohol use.
My own experiences illustrate the point pretty well. When I’ve done crazy things in the pursuit of love – even borderline illegal ones – I’ve often succeeded beyond my wildest dreams (although there have of course been setbacks). Whereas each time I’ve played it safe and done nothing, relying on the woman, or fate, to intervene, I’ve ended up empty-handed. I can count the number of times a woman has made the first move on me on the fingers of one hand. One clock hand.
What does all this mean? What am I getting at? Well, if there’s an air of boo-hoo to this article, it’s unintentional, because pity is not my aim. Nor am I seeking somehow to blame women for a situation that has clearly come about without premeditation on anyone’s part. But I do think this line of thought might suggest an explanation for the persistence of inequality in the workplace. If men really are more predisposed to take risks, then they are always going to apply more quickly for promotions, to take bigger gambles with company finances, to ask for pay rises more aggressively, and so on. Many of them are going to fail – but some will succeed, and they will perpetuate the inequality no matter what anti-discrimination laws are passed.
Just to be clear, I am not trying to justify the status quo. I hate the status quo as much as the next man (assuming the next man isn’t a cigar-chomping, sexist, Daily Mail-reading, cheating, Tory alpha male). But I believe that if we know the true reasons why things are the way they are, we stand more chance of improving them. The answer might lie in revising parenting and education to compensate for the “risk deficiency” in the female psyche; perhaps we need to re-engineer social and professional systems – and hopefully, eventually, attitudes – so that they reward skill, rather than risk-taking per se. Or maybe we could just give women testosterone jabs.
My suggestion would be to tackle the “risk excess” in men – to stop rewarding reckless behaviour. Principally by ceasing to sleep with the culprits. Why are men such dicks? Because their fathers were dicks, and someone shagged them. You might not need to keep campaigning for full equality, ladies; the matter just might be in your hands.