Stress causes men and women to respond differently to risky decision making, with men charging ahead for small rewards and women taking their time, according to a new study in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, published by Oxford University Press. Under stress, men and women also have different brain activation patterns during decision making.
There might be advantages to both stress responses, especially in areas with the need to weigh short-term gain and long-term benefits, such as the stock market, health decisions or retirement planning, according to lead author on the study Nichole Lighthall, a USC doctoral student.
The experiment might also have implications for daily life and relationships, Lighthall said.
Stress caused men and women to make decisions differently, but when stress was absent their behavior and brain activation was much more similar, Lighthall said. Men and women faced with tough decisions might improve their communication by waiting until a stressful situation has passed, Lighthall said. "Men and women appear to think more similarly when they are not stressed," Lighthall said. "You should be aware of the way you are biased in your decisions."
After being subjected to stress, men appeared to be more motivated to act quickly while women would slow down, Lighthall said.
For men under stress, playing a risk-taking game stimulated areas in the brain that are activated when one gets a reward or satisfies an addiction. The same experiment found diminished brain activity for women in the same areas when they were stressed.
"It appears women do not feel the drive to get a reward as much under stress," Lighthall said.
Participants were given a task of filling up a computer-simulated balloon with as much air as possible without popping the balloon.
Subjects earned from $4 to $45 based on their performance, with the men earning much more cash under stress.
Lighthall said that although men performed this task better, the more important conclusion may be that important decisions made under stress should include input from both genders.
"It might be better to have more gender diversity on important decision because men and women offer differing perspectives," Lighthall said. "Being more cautious and taking the time to make a decision will often be the right choice."
Mara Mather, director of the Emotion and Cognition Lab at USC and associate professor of psychology at USC Dornsige College and gerontology at the USC Davis School of Gerontology, Michiko Sakaki, Sarinnapha Vasunilashorn, Lin Nga, Sangeetha Somayajula, Eri Y. Chin and Nicole Samii, also of the USC Davis School, were co-authors of the study.
Last year Lighthall authored a study in the journal PLoS One that showed that men under stress may be more likely to take risks, correlating to such real-life behavior as gambling, smoking, unsafe sex and illegal drug use.
- N. R. Lighthall, M. Sakaki, S. Vasunilashorn, L. Nga, S. Somayajula, E. Y. Chen, N. Samii, M. Mather. Gender differences in reward-related decision processing under stress. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2011; DOI: 10.1093/scan/nsr026
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