Brain waves reveal why men take more risks than women

MOSCOW, Russia — Are men really more likely to be adventurous, risk-takers? According to a new study, they are, and a lot of it has to with the wiring of their brains. Researchers at HSE University say certain rhythms in the brain reveal how men and women differ when it comes to their attitudes towards risk.

Working with researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, the team discovered that the theta rhythm in the brain’s anterior cingulate cortex plays a major role in whether someone is more or less likely to take a chance.

Finding the right frequency for risk-taking

Scientists explain that as the brain transmits signals, neurons generate an electromagnetic field. The vast number of neurons actually make these fields strong enough for researchers to record using electroencephalography (or an EEG scan). These tests provide a recording of the brain’s electrical activity, which scientists divide into various frequency bands — sort of like the stations on a car radio.

Previous studies have discovered which parts of the brain these various waves come from and what state these signals occur in, such as during thinking tasks or while asleep. These studies also point to certain brain rhythms influencing behavior, including someone’s aversion to risk.

Study authors say, on average, men take more risks than women. They add that experiments show the strength of the theta rhythms in the right and left frontal lobes have a connection to the willingness to take risks. However, these older experiments mainly tested this connection in women, according to the HSE team.

Brain scans find differences between men and women

In the new research, study authors examined 35 people, including 15 women. Each participant had their brain’s magnetic fields analyzed using a magnetoencephalography scan. They also participated in three tests, including one risk-taking experiment using prize boxes.

This test had the group select several mystery boxes out of a pile of 100 boxes, with each containing a cash prize. However, one of these boxes also contained a “bomb” that would wipe out all of the contestant’s winnings. The other two tests were questionnaires, assessing self-control and the willingness to take risks.

In the box test, researchers discovered men have a bigger appetite for risk. On average, men selected 48 boxes in comparison to just 40 for women. On their first try, both men and women chose fewer boxes, but men still risked significantly more (44) than women (31). The questionnaires also revealed men appear to be more optimistic about the outcomes of the risks they take.

When looking at the brain scans, study authors found a link between frontal theta asymmetry and the number of boxes selected among women. Overall, the strength of these frontal theta rhythms and the oscillations (movement back and forth) in the anterior cingulate cortex displayed a connection to the results of the box game.

Do hormones also play a role in risk?

Along with the theta rhythms, researchers suspect other gender differences influence risk-taking behavior, including hormone levels such as testosterone.

“Gender differences in weighing of the potential consequences of decisions may not only affect risk-taking, but also reflect a more fundamental process of emotional responsiveness to environmental stimuli. We speculate that such differences related to hormonal regulation may also influence the prevalence of depression, anxiety and other clinical conditions among women, and we will continue to explore this topic,” says lead author Maria Azanova in a university release.

The study appears in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience.