Why do different people rate different risks so differently?

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There is a very simple study which has been replicated dozens of times. Show a list of activities to a group of people and ask them to rate how dangerous they evaluate each item on the list. In general, women will rate the activity as being more dangerous, men consistently view the same activity as less of a threat. This gender gap is apparent across a wide spectrum of risks, great and small and from personal (such as risks associated with smoking) to local (traffic) and supra-national (nuclear power). It sometimes seems as if young men think that they are indestructible and immune to harm; this is illustrated in the latest craze of “street racing” (racing fast cars down busy city streets).

A team led by Paul Slovic, an eminent psychologist and risk researcher, has explored the gender-related differences in risk assessment. In one of their studies, they asked over 1500 individuals to evaluate 25 risks with differing degrees of danger. One group of individuals, white males, was identified who differed from the other groups. These white men would consistently rate all activities as being less dangerous.

Non-white males also showed a similar tendency, but the difference between them and the other groups (non-white females, white females) was less significant. White males differed from all groups in their evaluation of all activities but the difference was quite dramatic for certain risks (e.g. risks associated with genetically-manipulated organisms, use of insecticides, nuclear power). For other activities (e.g. traffic accidents, risks of X-rays) the gender gap, though present, was less marked.

Risk takers

When the results of the study were examined in detail, one further interesting point emerged. White males were not a single homogenous mass. They could be divided into two groups. Every third male could be considered to be a risk taker. The other two thirds tended to rate risks similarly to white females (and also to non-Caucasians).

The white risk takers were, on average, better educated and working in better paid jobs with political tendencies on the right of the political spectrum. They were more inclined to have greater faith in establishment institutions and were willing to believe unreservedly the opinions of experts and the authorities. They were inclined to make snap decisions and considered that little was gained by encouraging a wide-ranging debate involving all sectors of the population before some important decision was made.

An explanation?

The researchers who performed the initial study did not set out to seek the reasons for the gender gap, but they have speculated that they do not believe that it is genetic in its origin. Their reason for this claim was that if the difference were biological (inherited), then it should be present in all males, irrespective of skin colour. Their favoured explanation was that this was due to nurture, not nature (the upbringing of the white males was responsible for their risk-taking behaviour). Put another way, women and non-Caucasians view the world as a generally dangerous and risky place to live. These individuals have been oppressed and subjected to discrimination for centuries. Therefore, it is not surprising that they are naturally apprehensive, believing the world to be full of threats (real or imaginary).

One potential explanation for the gender gap has been eliminated. The difference between white males and white females is not due to education or knowledge of the risk. This was neatly demonstrated by asking male and female toxicologists to fill in the risk questionnaire. Toxicologists as a profession spend much of their working life assessing risks associated with chemicals, and men and women receive an identical training in toxicology. Even in the toxicologists, the gender gap was apparent. Male (white) toxicologists would rate the risks associated not only with chemicals but also other risks as less significant than their female colleagues.

It is perhaps too hasty to rule out a biological explanation simply because non-Caucasian males do not exhibit the same risk-taking tendencies of white males. Skin colour is not determined at random. In most studies from the United States, the terms non-Caucasian or non-white refer to Afro-Americans; individuals whose origins lie in the tropical or sub-tropical climes of Africa. Caucasian refers to the descendants of European immigrants. Perhaps, one must add a historical dimension to the biological explanation, in other words over the tens of thousands of years of human development, could there be some biological reason why risk-taking might be a trait which has become enriched in some white males.

This is not completely out of the question. The early inhabitants of Europe eked out a fragile existence on the edges of the massive ice sheets which covered most of the present-day continent until ten thousand years ago. As the ice retreated, the first tribes ventured into the virgin forests. Hunting was their main source of food, especially hunting for large game species like moose, deer, wild boars, bears, in the very early times even for mammoths. Specialization was the key to survival of these stone-age communities, with the males setting out on hunting expeditions while the females remained closer to the camp foraging for nuts, seeds, berries and edible plants.

To ensure survival of the family, it was natural that women, who were responsible for the welfare of the children, should avoid all potential risks. If there was a threat of danger in the air, then the women and children would seek refuge and safety as quickly as possible. If the threat did not materialise, no real damage had been done and they could quickly resume their previous activities.

The situation for men on hunting expeditions was very different; if the male was not willing to take risks (in modern parlance, to put himself in harms way), then there was a real risk that the family would not eat that evening. Continual avoidance of risk could put the entire tribe at risk. This is the paradox; the community benefited by having at least a certain proportion of its males being willing to take risks but risk-taking was not advantageous in females.

Environmental pressures moulding human characteristics

Jacob Bronowski, the celebrated scientific broadcaster, claimed that the Topi antelope, which lives on the African savannah, has undergone virtually no biological changes during the past two million years. The Topi antelope is perfectly adapted to its environment and that environment has not changed very much during that time.

Two million years ago there were no human beings; the first vestiges of humanity were appearing in the form of Australopithecus, a very early human-like, primate species. Even during the past two hundred thousand years, humans have undergone spectacular evolutionary changes. Environmental pressures and crises have triggered these changes, with the last ice age only being the most recent environmental upheaval experienced by our forefathers. Human beings have become experts at adapting to rapidly changing environmental conditions; and these adaptations have left their imprint on human development. Is it impossible that they could also account for the difference between men and women in how they perceive dangers? Since tropical parts of Africa have not suffered the same climatic swings as Europe, is this the explanation why the gender gap in risk-taking did not develop to the same extent in humans living in these regions?

Women ultimately carry the burden of ensuring the survival of our species. Therefore it is not surprising that they have been endowed with traits and characteristics which make them naturally suspicious of novel and strange objects. History teaches us that women have been unenthusiastic about cars, aeroplanes, electrical appliances and today female politicians tend to be in the forefront in opposition to nuclear power, water fluoridation, GM foods etc. Women only embrace a novel technology when it becomes more commonplace and less strange. Men, just like little boys, are fascinated by the latest gadgets and can’t wait to try out the latest invention for themselves, even though occasionally it all ends in tears.

Each attitude has its own good and bad sides; it will ultimately depend on the circumstances, which is better – acceptance or rejection of the latest technology. Put simply which is the greater risk to our society, excessive caution or foolhardy boldness.

Men rate risks differently from women, a fact that decision-makers need to take into account when they evaluate public opinion.

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