Why are men more prone to engaging in risk-taking behaviour compared to women?
I’m sure you’ve seen one of those clips on social media where people, predominantly men, injure themselves doing silly things. Yes, that’s what I’m talking about.
In our ancestral times, hunting was a risky but potentially rewarding activity. A successful hunt provided more calories than one could gather from plants growing in the wild. The extra calories could be provided not only to one’s own family but also to one’s neighbours.
Consequently, successful hunters gained respect and high status in our ancestral times.
But hunting is a risky activity. A hunter faces the risk of being injured or hunted down by predators. So, a hunter risks his own survival, which is the greatest risk one can take, to garner calories for his family and tribe.
Besides being risky, hunting is also a very unpredictable activity. A hunter may be successful one week but fail in the next. This unpredictability only served to increase the status of those hunters who were successful more frequently than the others. To be a frequently successful hunter, one inevitably had to take more risks.
Women preferred to gather around men who were successful hunters and risk-takers. Firstly, they benefited by gaining a portion of the calories won. Secondly, they felt safer in the company of successful hunters who’d already proven themselves to be brave risk-takers and thus could better protect women from predators and other men.
Successful hunters, on the other hand, also gained by having more women around them. Firstly, having more women around them meant better nurturing and childcare of their own children. Secondly, it also meant increased sexual access to these women which would increase their odds of fathering more children.
Both these benefits served to increase the reproductive success of successful hunters.
As we have seen, in our ancestral times, risk-taking was directly proportional to reproductive success as far as men were concerned. Men who were risk-takers were better able to pass on their genes to the next generation. As a result, risk-taking men became more and more common in the population.
Modern successful hunters
Today, except in some primitive societies, hunting is no longer the way to get more calories or attain reproductive success. While the way of procuring the calories has changed, the basic principles of evolutionary psychology remain the same.
Today’s successful hunters are risk-taking entrepreneurs, celebrities, politicians, sportsmen (especially the ones who perform dangerous stunts), fire-fighters and soldiers.
Although the amount of ‘calories’ that these men procure may vary, their willingness to take risks is appealing to modern women in just the same way as it was to ancestral women.
Even though today, attaining a high status may not necessarily require being a risk-taker, women are programmed to perceive high-status men as risk-takers.
Women and cautiousness
If being risk-takers increased the reproductive success of ancestral men and that’s why risk-taking is a common strategy among men today, then the fact that most women are cautious means cautiousness must have increased the reproductive success of ancestral women.
Since ancestral women were predominantly gatherers, they weren’t required to take as many risks as were taken by ancestral men. Also, being physically weaker was not a trait that would have helped much with hunting.
Now for a woman, unlike for a man, having a child is a costly affair. It involves 9 months of gestation, labour pain and several complications that could endanger her own life. This heavy investment in having a child forces a woman to ensure the best return on her investment in terms of reproductive success.
Nurturing, caring, loving and protecting her children as much as she can and ensuring their reproductive success after they reach the age of reproduction is the best way for a woman to increase her own reproductive success.
The surest way for a mother to take the best care of her child is by being very cautious of possible environmental dangers that could threaten her safety and the safety of her child.
By taking fewer risks and preferring peace and security, a woman ensures the security of her children.
Ancestral women avoided physical violence as much as they could because during pregnancy such acts could’ve proven to be dangerous for her and the baby.
Even today, whatever little physical fight women get in, they try to avoid doing any serious physical damage to each other- they may slap one another, pull each other’s hair or just flick each other with their fingers, instead of punching or kicking hard.
Women and children are more likely to faint at the sight of blood in a violent context than men. Fainting conveys the message that “we’re harmless and non-combatant, don’t harm us.”
Women experience greater disgust and repulsion in response to gory movies like Saw and Wrong Turn. This, once again, is the result of their violence-avoiding behavioural strategy.
Women report a greater fear of events in which they might get injured such as assault, robbery, burglary, and car accidents, even though, statistically, men are more likely to experience these threats to survival.
When an ancestral woman faced a danger, she screamed at the top of her high-pitched voice, alerting the other members of the tribe who then rushed in to protect her and her child.
Now you know why, when a bee enters through the classroom window, girls scream frantically while the composure of boys is barely ruffled.
Hi, I’m Hanan Parvez (MBA, MA Psychology), founder and author of PsychMechanics. I’ve published one book and authored 300+ articles and on this blog (started in 2014) that have garnered over 4 million views. PsychMechanics has been featured in Forbes, Business Insider, Reader’s Digest, and Entrepreneur. Feel free to contact me if you have a query.