InvestingPeer-Reviewed Research

Double Dare

People leaping off a ledge
  • Men are more prone to take risks for personal financial gain than women, and women are more likely than men to take risks to protect themselves from financial loss.
  • Past research suggests that women are more influenced by “communion” goals related to loss minimization and men are more influenced by self-oriented goals related to gain maximization.
  • Male investors who believe they are highly capable are more likely to take a risk than female investors with the same belief about their own capability.

When motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel leapt over cars, vans and fountains, it was little surprise that the person pulling those stunts was a man. That’s not to say women never partake in high-risk behavior (Danica Patrick, anyone?). But decades of research confirm that men really are more inclined to take risks (Byrnes, Miller, and Schafer 1999). 

Snake River Canyon and the Indy 500 aside, economic life offers plenty of riskw as well. When these risks involve investing, men under certain circumstances are more likely than women to take dangerous leaps (Jianakoplos and Bernasek 1998). But why?

Rice Businesses professor Vikas Mittal joined Xin He of the University of Florida and J. Jeffrey Inman of the University of Pittsburgh in three studies to examine why men and women engage in risky business. Specifically, the team wanted to test whether each gender’s risk-taking was moderated by a trait called issue capability: a decision-makers’ belief that he or she can solve an issue.  (Mittal, Ross, and Tsiros 2002, p. 455).

The team grounded their work in agency-communion theory. This posits that men are more driven by goals that further self-interest (“agentic” goals) and women are more driven by goals that further coexistence (“communion” goals).

Based on this theory, the researchers hypothesized that men making investment decisions would take greater risks as their issue capability rose. This would occur because men, who are more focused on maximizing gains, would become more risk-seeking as their self-capability perceptions increased.

Conversely, the researchers theorized, women who faced similar investment decisions would focus on avoiding loss — even when their issue capability rose. This fundamental difference in investing perspective — men trying to maximize any gain versus women trying to minimize any loss – would be at the heart of a diametrically opposite stance on financial risk-taking.

All three studies proved the theory to be correct.

In the first study, the researchers asked men and women to wager money on Daily Double questions in “Jeopardy!” The male contestants with higher issue capability (i.e. demonstrated knowledge of the category) took the biggest risks. The women contestants showed equal levels of betting behavior regardless of whether they had high issue capability or not. 

In the second study, the researchers dove into the psychology underlying gender and issue capability. First, the researchers primed male and female participants to believe they had either good or bad track records with risky investment decisions. Then they asked both groups to imagine they could invest $20,000 at varying levels of risk.

When it came to investing for gains, the researchers found, the women’s beliefs about their issue capability made no real difference in their financial choices. Even after they had been primed to think they were highly capable investors, the women participants were less prone than the men to focus on the upside potential

And the men? Those who believed they were “capable” made the riskiest investment decisions. They also reported the highest number of thoughts about the positive potential of the various investment scenarios. Statistical analysis proved that these gain-maximization thoughts egged them on in their risk-taking.

On the other hand, those male participants who weren’t primed to feel capable showed risk-taking patterns identical to that of the female participants. The results, in other words, suggest that the key difference between men and women’s risk-taking is not innate — but stems from their self-conviction in investment competence.

The third study examined these processes in yet another way, by giving female and male participants the chance to maximize gains through making investments in stocks, or to minimize losses through buying insurance. Once again, the men primed to see themselves as ace investors made the riskiest investments. The women who felt themselves especially capable kept their risk-taking steady.

The women’s behavior only changed when they thought they were subpar investors. When both women and men were told they were stock market duds, the women were more likely than the men to buy insurance — in other words, to take traditional measures to defend against loss.

Risk-taking choices, in other words, can no longer be written off as just boys being boys or girls being girls. More accurately, boys will be boys when a male investor thinks he is especially capable and that taking a risk will benefit him personally. That’s not always a good thing. A female investor, who will typically focus on minimizing potential loss, can contribute a lot to investing decisions. Taking a big risk, as many an investor knows, isn’t always the best move.

Mittal’s findings inspire a list of possibilities for future research. What will happen to these behaviors as more women assume leadership jobs and more men get to show their skill as caregivers? Should senior management teams have both male and female representation to balance out the upsides and downsides of investment decisions? What about at home: would household decisions change for the better if both the man and the woman contributed their perspective?


Vikas Mittal is the J. Hugh Liedtke Professor of Marketing at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

To learn more, please see: Xin H., Inman, J. J., & Vikas Mittal (2008). Gender jeopardy in financial risk taking. Journal of Marketing Research, 45(4), 414-424.