Recently, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York said that if we want to fix the gridlock in Congress, we need more women. Women are more focused on finding common ground and collaborating, she argued. But there’s another reason that we’d benefit from more women in positions of power, and it’s not about playing nicely. Neuroscientists have uncovered evidence suggesting that, when the pressure is on, women bring unique strengths to decision-making.
Mara Mather, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Southern California, and Nichole R. Lighthall, a cognitive neuroscientist now at Duke University, are two of the many researchers who have found that under normal circumstances, when everything is low-key and manageable, men and women make decisions about risk in similar ways. We gather the best information we can. We weigh potential costs against potential gains, and then we choose how to act. But add stress to the situation – replicated in the lab by having participants submerge their hands in painfully cold, 35-degree water – and men and women begin to part ways.
Mather and her team taught people a simple computer gambling game, in which they got points for inflating digital balloons. The more they inflated each balloon, the greater its value and the risk of popping it. When they were relaxed, men and women took similar risks and averaged a similar number of pumps. But after experiencing the cold water, the stressed women stopped sooner, cashing out their winnings and going with the more guaranteed win. Stressed men did just the opposite. They kept pumping – in one study averaging about 50 percent more pumps than the women – and risking more. In this experiment, the men’s risk-taking earned them more points. But that wasn’t always the case.
In another experiment, researchers asked participants to draw cards from multiple decks, some of which were safe, providing frequent small rewards, and others risky, with infrequent, but bigger rewards. The researchers found that the most stressed men drew 21 percent more cards from the risky decks than from the safe decks, compared with the most stressed women, losing more over all.
Across a variety of gambles, the findings were the same: Men took more risks when they were stressed. They became more focused on big wins, even when they were costly and less likely.
Levels of the stress hormone cortisol appear to be a major factor, according to Ruud van den Bos, a neurobiologist at Radboud University in the Netherlands. He and his colleagues have found that the tendency to take more risks when under pressure is stronger in men who experience a larger spike in cortisol. But in women he found that a slight increase in cortisol seemed actually to improve decision-making performance.
But the closer the women got to the stressful event, the better their decision making became. Stressed women tended to make more advantageous decisions, looking for smaller, surer successes. Not so for the stressed men. The closer the timer got to zero, the more questionable the men’s decision making became, risking a lot for the slim chance of a big achievement.
The men were also less aware that they had used a risky strategy. In the last few minutes of the game, Preston interrupted each person immediately after he or she had just lost money. She asked people to rate how risky each of their possible choices had been, including the unsuccessful one they had just made. Women were more likely to rate their losing strategy as a poor one.
In one interesting study, a team led by Livia Tomova and Claus Lamm, of the University of Vienna, found through three experiments that under stressful conditions, women became more attuned to others. In one, people reached through a curtain and touched something pleasant, like a feather or a cotton ball, or something unpleasant, like a slimy mushroom or a plastic slug. Each person could see a picture of what he or she was touching, and what another person was touching a few feet away, and had to rate the pleasantness of their respective experiences. Typically, people merge the other person’s experience with their own – if I’m touching something pleasant, then I’ll rate your slug-touching experience as nicer than I ordinarily would.
Of course, just because it works this way in a lab doesn’t mean the same thing happens in the messy real world. Do organizations with women in charge actually make less risky and more empathetic decisions in stressful circumstances?
Some evidence suggests they do. Credit Suisse examined almost 2,400 global corporations from 2005 to 2011 – including the years directly preceding and following the financial crisis – and found that large-cap companies with at least one woman on their boards outperformed by 26 percent comparable companies with all-male boards.
Some might assume that there was a cost to this improved performance, as well, that boards with women must have been excessively cautious before the financial crisis of 2008, as was the case with the balloon experiment. Not so. From 2005 to 2007, Credit Suisse also found, the stock performance of companies with women on their boards essentially matched performance of companies with all-male boards. Nothing lost, but much gained.
If we want our organizations to make the best decisions, we need to notice who is deciding and how tightly they’re gritting their teeth.
Unfortunately, what often happens is that women are asked to lead only during periods of intense stress. It’s called the glass cliff, a phenomenon first observed by the University of Exeter professors Michelle K. Ryan and Alex Haslam, who is now at the University of Queensland, in which highly qualified women are asked to lead organizations only in times of crisis. Think of Mary T. Barra at General Motors and Marissa Mayer at Yahoo, who were both brought in only after things had begun to fall apart. If more women were key decision makers, perhaps organizations could respond effectively to small stresses, rather than letting them escalate into huge ones.
We can’t make the big jobs in government or business any less stressful. But we can ensure that when the pressure rises, there’s a better balance between taking big risks and making real progress.
Therese Huston is a cognitive psychologist at Seattle University who is working on a book about women and decision-making.