Men have a reputation for taking mre risks than women. While this is a gross generalization, and there are certainly many women who take plenty of risks, a variety of studies suggest that men take greater risks in a variety of a ways. One big motivation for this risk taking by men might be attracting women.
One study that examined risk taking behaviors examined how early students arrived for a bus, watching a particular bus stop. A bus at the University of Liverpool would arrive at its stop 12 minutes before its scheduled departure at 9:40 AM. Finding the optimal time to arrive for the bus stop would seem easy; if the bus always gets to the stop at 9:40, then you could arrive at 9:39 AM, waste little time waiting, and always make it to class on time. Sometimes the bus leaves a few minutes early though, making the least risky time to arrive at the bus stop five minutes before its schedule departure. Any later and you risk getting left in the cold and missing your class.
When the arrival times for students were analyzed, women seem to instinctively gauge their arrivals to the predicted optimum, getting to the bus stop five minutes before the bus leaves. Single men, however, arrive at the bus stop slightly later, taking a greater risk.
Taking the bus to school might not seem like a big turn on, but the researchers also examined how men and women cross a busy street. Researchers watched a street on campus in Liverpool and judged the traffic when men or women pedestrians approached. The researchers then broke down the amount of traffic present as low or no risk, or as risky when cars were passing through the pedestrian crossing. When the data were examined, men at the crossing were significantly more likely than women to cross at risky moments when cars were passing in the street. But this risky behavior was not always seen. Most people avoid risky crossings when spectators are present, but young men in this UK study were particularly likely to make risky crossings when females were present, as if this was their way of showing off for the opposite sex.
Similar findings are seen elsewhere. In another study, young male skateboarders took more risks and more falls when observed by an attractive female researcher. The higher the skateboarders’ testosterone levels, the greater the risks they took. “Our results suggest that displays of physical risk taking might best be understood as hormonally fueled advertisements of health and vigor aimed at potential mates, and signals of strength, fitness, and daring intended to intimidate potential rivals,” said Prof. William von Hippel of the University of Queensland.
The reason for this risk taking by men may lie in our biology. In mammals, females invests more in reproduction than males. Many men might make great dads who stick around and help with the kids, but the minimum investment on the part of men can be quite short, while women must invest at least nine months. As a result of this one-sided commitment, mammalian females are often quite choosy when selecting mates. Males of some mammalian species often compete for mates one way or another, displaying their superiority as a potential mate. In the case of humans, this competition might come in the form of showing off by taking risks.
Of course, men are not the only ones taking risks, and how they take risks depends on the situation. Not all risk taking by men is likely to be for attracting women. Studies suggest that men might take more physical and financial risks, but women take greater social risks. But the next time you are crossing the street or at the skate park, look out for the young males.
Glenn Croston is the author of "The Real Story of Risk: Adventures in a Hazardous World," exploring the strange relationship we have with risks in the world around us. He is also the author of "Gifts from the Train Station," and "75 Green Businesses."