>[The] sexes differ in risk taking from childhood. One of the best measures of physical risk taking in children is the incidence of accidental death and injury. In most industrialized countries, including the United States, accidents are the leading cause of death for children older than one year. A World Health Organization study of accidental-death rates in fifty countries found a substantially higher rate for boys in all countries, with a ratio of male to female deaths of 1.9:1 in Europe and 1.7:1 in non-European countries. Notwithstanding greater equality and socially sanctioned androgyny, the male/female accidental-death ratio actually increased in the United States from 1960 to 1979.
Greater risk taking among boys is a robust finding. Boys are exposed to greater risks not only because they are more likely to engage in risky behaviors, but also because when engaging in the same activity as girls, they are more likely to perform it in a risky manner. Boys are substantially more likely to approach hazardous items than girls, and they differ in how they approach them, with girls tending to look and point and boys tending to touch and retrieve them.
Several factors appear to account for the greater inclination of boys to engage in risky activity. Boys tend to have both a higher activity level and poorer impulse control, both traits that are associated with injury rates. Three factors are correlated with self-reported risk taking in both boys and girls: attribution of injuries to bad luck, a belief that one is less vulnerable to injury than one's peers, and downplaying the degree of risk. Boys score higher than girls on all three of these traits.
Boys are less likely than girls to abstain from a risky activity simply because they have seen a peer injured while engaging in the same activity. The best predictor of girls' willingness to take a particular risk is their belief about the likelihood of getting hurt, while for boys it is the perceived severity of the injury. That is, girls tend to avoid risks if they think they might get hurt, while boys seem to be willing to take risks if they do not think they will get too hurt. It is possible, however, that positive attitudes about risk may result in part from risk taking, rather than causing it.
In adolescence and adulthood, sex differences in risk taking increase. Men are disproportionately involved in risky recreational activities such as car racing, sky diving, and hang gliding. Indeed, sex is the variable most predictive of the extent of participation in high-risk recreation. The driving style of men also shows a greater propensity toward risk. Men are disproportionately represented in risky employment, as well. Over 90 percent of all workplace deaths in the United States are males. A list of dangerous occupations is a list of disproportionately male occupations: fisherman, logger, airplane pilot, structural metal worker, coal miner, oil and gas extraction occupations, water transportation occupations, construction laborer, taxicab driver, roofer, and truck driver.
Men's greater propensity to risk their lives is demonstrated by a study of the recipients of awards granted by the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission. Of the 676 acts of heroism recognized from 1989 through 1995, 92 percent were performed by males. Moreover, over one-half of these rescued by women were known to the rescuer, while over two-thirds of those rescued by men were strangers. Although this is not a random sample of heroes, since one must be nominated for the award, it is likely that, if anything, the sex difference is understated because acts of heroism by women would tend to attract more attention than those by men.
Risk taking is statistically correlated with a number of other stereotypically male traits. People who rate high on achievement and dominance, for example, tend to be high risk takers. Risk taking and competitiveness may be related, since competition-prone individuals tend to be willing to take greater risks in pursuit of their competitive objective. High risk takers also fight more frequently, are more socially aggressive, take more dares, and participate in more rough sports and physical activities such as hunting, mountain climbing, and auto racing. In contrast, risk taking is negatively associated with a number of stereotypically female traits: affiliation, nurturance, succorance, deference, and abasement.
Psychologist Elizabeth Arch has suggested that the sex differences in achievement orientation ... may be explained in part by sex differences in risk taking. From an early age, females are more averse not just to physical risk but also to social risk, and they "tend to behave in a manner that ensures continued social inclusion". This aversion to risk may be partially responsible for women's disproportionately low representation in positions involving "career risk", which may be adversely affect their prospects for advancement. This pattern suggests that what is sometimes labeled women's "fear of success" is in fact the more prosaic and easier to understand "fear of failure".
One's willingness to take risks depends in large part upon the relative values that one places on success and failure. A person whose appetite for success exceeds his aversion to failure will be inclined toward action; a person whose aversion to failure exceeds his appetite for success will be inclined not to act. A strong motive to achieve or to avoid failure may also bias the actor's subjective probability of outcome. That is, an achievement-oriented person may have a higher expectation of success than is objectively warranted, while a person with a high motivation to avoid failure may consistently underestimate the chance of success.<
Kingsley R. Browne; 2002;
Biology at Work