There are few gender differences more reliable than women’s penchant for worrying. Worrying may sound like a bad idea—unless it happens to save your life. Many women worry their way to a long healthy life. Their boyfriends feel invincible but turn out not to be.
Anxiety: The good and the bad
Anxiety is a protective emotion that keeps us away from threats to life and limb, whether that is working on top of roofs, or sawing down large trees. There are very few female roofers or lumberjacks.1
Indeed, every dangerous occupation, from fishing to mining is dominated by males who are overwhelmingly the gender that dies in industrial accidents such as boats being lost in a storm or mine shafts caving in. Women are also more religious which makes sense if one thinks of religious ritual as a way of warding off threats.2
Health researchers know that women take better care of themselves.1 They are more likely to receive medical checkups when they are well, less likely to abuse alcohol, or smoke, and more likely to take regular exercise to control their weight.
Women are much less likely to die in car accidents because they drive more safely. Low female risk-taking was favored by natural selection because women taking fewer risks were more likely to survive and therefore more likely to raise children to maturity.
The down side is a tendency to worry too much. Women are more vulnerable to anxiety disorders. Chronic anxiety also causes depression. This helps explain why women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with clinical depression compared to men (Of course, they are also more likely to seek help for emotional problems whereas many depressed men go untreated).
On the other hand, male risk-taking was favored because riskier men acquired higher social status by not backing down from confrontation with peers. This is why men are most fearless, risk-taking, and violent, in young adulthood, an age that is critical for establishing a pecking order amongst peers.
One might imagine that such strong patterns of gender differences would be hard to change but that is not true. Younger women today are much less risk averse than earlier generations. One plausible reason is that women today are exposed to a great deal more competition including sports, vying for academic success, and climbing the occupational ladder.
Young women take more risks
As more women join the fulltime workforce, and compete over high-status jobs, their risk-taking profile increases. For many categories of risky behavior, such as abuse of alcohol and reckless driving, young women are now more similar to young men. Yet, this phenomenon is an anomaly not seen in other societies throughout history.
Although gender differences in risk-taking are declining in the modern world, women are still lower on risk-taking, on average. The evolved gender difference is alive and well at the level of emotional predispositions. Women are more anxious than men, and that anxiety is one reason that they still live longer, healthier, lives..
1. Courtenay, W. H. (2000). Behavioral factors associated with disease, injury, and death, among men: Evidence and implications for prevention. Journal of Men’s Studies 9, 81-142.
2. Barber, N. (2012). Why atheism will replace religion: The triumph of earthly pleasures over pie in the sky. E-book, available at: http://www.amazon.com/Atheism-Will-Replace-Religion-ebook/dp/B00886ZSJ6/