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Men More Likely Than Women to Make 'Extreme' Choices, Study Suggests

Two male stock brokers talking on phones and pointing at computer screens

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Key Takeaways

  • A recent study found that men are more likely than women to make extreme decisions.
  • This could potentially be explained by a combination of evolutionary biology and societal norms.
  • Researchers suggest these findings could impact the creation of policies to regulate extreme behaviors.

It's no secret that men and women often think and behave differently due to evolutionary and societal influences. But new research from the University of Sydney suggests these factors also contribute to the likeliness of men to make more extreme decisions.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, looked at experimental economics studies involving more than 50,000 participants, specifically analyzing preferences regarding risk-taking, patience, altruism and trust.

“We found men were much more likely than women to be at the extreme ends of the behavioural spectrum, either acting very selfishly or very altruistically, very trusting or very distrusting, very fair or very unfair, very risky or very risk averse and were either very short-term or very long-term focused,” said study researcher Stefan Volk, PhD, associate professor at the University of Sydney Business School, in a statement.

The researchers note that their findings could potentially impact policies aimed at regulating extreme behaviors, pointing to the example of the recent GameStop stock saga that promoted extreme trading behaviors.

"Our findings suggest that preferences for extreme risk taking are more frequent among men, and policies designed to curb such behaviors are more likely to be effective when designed to appeal to men," the study says.

Why Do Men Take More Extreme Risks?

Study researcher Christian Thöni, PhD, points to evolutionary biology as a partial explanation for these findings.

"In short, as females have a higher investment in their offspring, it makes sense for them to be selective in their choice of partners," he says. "In turn, males can increase their reproductive success if they are exceptional. Thus the incentives to engage in extreme behavior are higher for men than for women."

Christian Thöni, PhD

It makes sense for [females] to be selective in their choice of partners. In turn, males can increase their reproductive success if they are exceptional. Thus the incentives to engage in extreme behavior are higher for men than for women.

— Christian Thöni, PhD

But there are likely other factors at play, as well, says psychologist Tracy Thomas, PhD. For example, she says, testosterone, the primary male sex hormone, is the hormone of energy and execution.

"Men have lots of executing energy flowing that will either be experienced as unharnessed reactivity or, ideally, the energy gets harnessed into creative productive, positive intentionality for creating beneficial things, circumstances, etc.," she says.

Beyond biology, emotional training—or a lack thereof—in men could lead to more extreme behaviors.

"Males are not emotionally trained as much as females to think through things and give things lots of extensive consideration, and to deeply consider options and their impact and influence on others," Thomas says. "Ultimately, they are trained in an inadvertent way for more reactivity and extreme decision-making while females are emotionally trained and socialized for deeply considering everyone’s needs and perspectives and how each thing will impact each person."

This theory of gendered emotional training and behavior also lends itself to the fact that, in patriarchal societies, women are afforded less opportunity for variability than men.

Emotional Training for Less Reactivity

Part of the focus of Thomas's practice is helping individuals to lessen their emotional reactivity. Her method of emotional training includes simple, practical steps that, she says, have lead to major transformations in her clients.

Tracy Thomas, PhD

Choose your focus in every moment so that you can eventually come to live in an intentional state... where reactions are the rare exception.

— Tracy Thomas, PhD

To manage the powerful flow of reactive energy in your daily life, she recommends the following:

  1. Check in with yourself like you'd check your phone to determine whether you're reacting emotionally or with intention. "Keep building connection to yourself instead of continually disconnecting from yourself due to reactive emotions," Thomas says.
  2. Communicate with yourself and others intentionally. "It’s easy to be in a reactive state and have all of your internal and external communication come from a reactive place rather than an intentional one," she says.
  3. If you do feel you're in a reactionary state, "harness all of your emotions into an outcome that you want to create," Thomas says. These outcomes can be as simple as feelings, like joy, peace or purpose, or they can be in the form of actions like cooking, reading or taking a nap. By focusing on your outcomes, your can shift yourself out of a potentially negative chain of reactions.
  4. Continue to actively align your words and actions with your chosen outcomes in order to steer away from reactivity and toward productivity.

"You’re a powerful creator of all of your experiences no matter what you choose to focus on," Thomas says. "Choose your focus in every moment so that you can eventually come to live in an intentional state and have that be your conditioned emotional status where reactions are the rare exception to your intentional life."

What This Means For You

If you feel emotionally reactive and prone to extreme decision-making, make it a point to occasionally check in with yourself. Communicating with yourself and others can help you stay focused on your desired outcomes.

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  1. Thöni C, Volk S. Converging evidence for greater male variability in time, risk, and social preferences. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2021;118(23):e2026112118. doi:10.1073/pnas.2026112118