Stress Affects Risk Taking Differently for Men and Women

by Andrew Sanders and Kate Humphreys
Making decisions can be a difficult task. How do we choose to get from point A to point B? Does our decision change whether we are running late for an important engagement? Does stress facilitate our decision making, and if so, does it matter whether we are trying to get to something we desire (e.g., catch the beginning of a film) versus avoid something negative (e.g., punishment from supervisor for tardiness)? Also, does stress affect all people in the same way? For example, do males and females differ in their decision making in response to stress?

Recent research reviewed by Mather and Lighthall highlight two major findings in this literature:

Finding #1: Acute stress has been shown to improve the selection of previously rewarding outcomes, while impairing avoidance of previously negative outcomes. The authors claim this may be due to stress-induced changes in dopamine release affecting brain regions associated with reward processing. Stress enhances learning about positive choice outcomes and impairs learning about negative-choice outcomes, which seems to be similar across gender and age. Stress enhances reward salience via modulation of the dopamine system resulting in reward-biased learning and decision making under stress. For example, participants completed a learning task after being exposed to a stressor or not. They concluded that stress led to better learning from positive feedback and worse learning from negative feedback. They authors theorized that Increases dopamine release as a response to stress is the mediator that facilitates learning during reward-associated behaviors.

Finding #2: Stress alters decision strategies made under risky and uncertain events in opposite ways for men and women. Men take more risk under stress, while females take less risk. It is believed that these behavioral differences are due to differences in activity in the brain region called the insula (associated with computing risk) and the dorsal striatum (associated with preparing to take action). In one study examining rewards in a balloon-based task, men exposed to a stressor made riskier decisions and sought greater reward when compared to females whose results were opposite. In another study, the administration of cortisol, a stress hormone, to men led to increased risky gambling behavior. Across many of these lab studies, stress enhanced males’ performance when increased risk taking was beneficial, but also impaired their performance when increased risk taking was detrimental. Thus, for men, stress helped under conditions in which risk taking was an adaptive response only. The opposite effect was found for women.