Risks are messy for one simple reason: they involve our emotions. Life soon teaches us that controlling our emotions is like holding a tiger by the tail—hard and unpredictable.

Not only are emotions unpredictable, but they’re also unreliable. Our heart is quite capable of misleading our heads and persuading us to do stupid things in the name of love—or anger. It’s easy to let emotions dictate our behavior. Just because something feels bad doesn’t mean it really is bad.

Risk triggers the emotional and intuitive part of our brain and plays an important part in the way we make decisions. Our gut reaction is to avoid risk and stay within our comfort zone, but that thinking can keep us in a rut in both our personal and professional lives.

The only difference between a rut and a coffin is the dimensions.

As we move out of our comfort zone, we move closer to risk. We don’t know how far into the unknown our risks will take us. Conventional wisdom says that women take fewer risks than men, but is it true? Much of the difference can be attributed to the ways boys and girls are socialized as children. In general, boys are reared to shoot from the hip. Girls learn early on that risky behavior can be dangerous.

Research finds that men and women use different strategies. They also use different parts of the brain when making choices on how to keep moving toward goals.

Both sexes need mental toughness to make good decisions when risk is a factor because they need to manage their emotions, thoughts, and behavior in a way that benefits them.

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Here’s a look at the differences between the way men and women look at risk:

1. Bias Can Make A Difference

Traditional tests used in the past have often been biased and made false claims about gender and risk. Most studies find that people rate masculine risk-taking as riskier than female risk-taking. When we think of risk, we think of men and masculine behavior, and female risk-taking is often overlooked.

For example, the majority of studies that point to men as having a greater inclination for risk have used questions that focus on physical and financial goals. They don’t usually add questions about standing up for what is right in the face of opposition or the benchmarks for ethical behavior.

How To Make It Work For You: Take a look at your existing biases and see where you can update your stereotypes. Start by identifying your blind spots. When you’re armed with information about common stereotypes and ways you can overcome them, you’ll be able to make smarter decisions.

2. Stress Can Make A Difference

Stress causes men and women to make decisions differently, but when stress is absent their behavior and brain activity is very similar. A recent study found that there are gender differences with activity in the insula and dorsal striatum, regions of the brain involved in computing risk and preparing for action.

Males tend to be motivated to act quickly while women tend to slow down when making a decision. The study concluded that stress activates the same areas in the male brain that creates rewards or satisfies an addiction. Women do not feel the drive to get a reward as much while under stress. This is important given the stressful nature of life in today’s world.

How To Make It Work For You: Don’t rush to the conclusion that men are too reckless and women are too cautious! The ideal situation is for a mix of both men and women to offer different perspectives on the risk involved before making a decision. Men and women might improve their communication by waiting until a stressful situation has passed.

3. Immediate vs Long-Term Rewards Can Make A Difference

A paper published in Science Direct discovered that most of the women in their study focused on immediate reward. Meanwhile, most of the men focused on long-term rewards.

Digging deeper to understand these findings, and others like them, another study found that a male brain tends to seek out irregular patterns of behavior which will provide him with a competitive advantage. This helps him to focus on the big picture and set goals that will produce long-term rewards. It’s also what makes a male more stubborn.

A female brain engages the medial part of the orbitofrontal cortex which is involved in identifying regular patterns and immediate rewards. Her brain is able to assimilate new information that enables her to make adjustments to strategies that will lead to rewards. She keeps a close eye on the short-term goals so she can be agile and flexible when either risk or opportunity presents itself.

The dividing line between male and female brains is blurry but research continues to disentangle the biological from the societal.

How To Make It Work For You: Neither decision-making strategy is better than the other; both are necessary for daily life. Again, a collaboration between men and women is often the best way to set goals and move forward. It allows a team to focus on the long-term while at the same keep alert for risks that may pop up due to sudden and unexpected changes in the environment.

It too simplistic to assume that all men and women react the same way to risk, stress, and goal setting. And it’s dangerous to stereotype behavior by gender. Of primary significance is that these studies elucidate how different brains each bring unique strengths to the table. Working together will create a stronger collaborative product in the end.  

© 2020 LaRae Quy. All rights reserved.

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Author of “Mental Toughness for Women Leaders: 52 Tips To Recognize and Utilize Your Greatest Strengths” and “Secrets of a Strong Mind.” 

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