Do women take fewer risks than men?
A purple balloon appears on the screen. With a click of the mouse, the balloon swells and a cash jackpot grows. But if the balloon pops, the jackpot empties.
Do you cash out quickly and collect your winnings? Or do you go for the big payoff and risk losing everything? That might depend on your gender.
Called the balloon analogue risk task, the test measures risk taking and decision making in participants. Using neuroimaging, UT Arlington researchers studied the brain’s responses during wins and losses, which can trigger changes in blood flow.
In a recent test of 40 adults ages 25-44, women were far more likely to avoid risk, and women demonstrated stronger brain activation when they lost, says nursing Assistant Professor Mary Cazzell, who is spearheading the research.
“We know males and females are different, but it is fascinating to see the brains respond so differently. Nobody has really looked at gender differences and risk decision making using neuroimaging, and this could have major applications.”
The research is a collaboration between Dr. Cazzell and bioengineering Professor Hanli Liu. The pair met at a monthly roundtable of UT Arlington cognitive science researchers that includes faculty in engineering, nursing, linguistics, social work, psychology, physics, and education.
Rather than use fMRI, or functional magnetic resonance imaging, Dr. Liu suggested that Cazzell study the brain with fNIRS, functional near-infrared spectroscopy, a relatively new, low-cost, non-invasive, and portable imaging technique that monitors brain activity in the prefrontal cortex.
Liu had already used fNIRS to study post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans and pain in nonveterans. Because it costs less to run than fMRI, it’s possible to involve a larger sample size.
A fiber optic device placed on the subject’s scalp measures changes in intensity of near-infrared light, which allows researchers to monitor blood flow in the front of the brain. That worked well for Cazzell’s research because the prefrontal cortex is responsible for making decisions related to risk.
The partnership led to a published study in the scientific journal NeuroImage. Cazzell and Liu plan to run the same test on adults 65 and older. They eventually hope to determine whether gender differences in risk taking exist across all stages of life.
The project is funded by start-up money from UT Arlington and a grant from the Southern Nurses Research Society. Congressional funding enabled the University to purchase the fNIRS technology.
The research could have far-reaching applications, from understanding why certain people are more likely to engage in risky behavior—heavy drinking, gambling, reckless driving—to helping counselors tailor therapy based on age and gender.
The work also could help parents better understand their children’s behavior. For example, parents could learn that taking away privileges from a risk-averse teenage daughter might work better than taking them away from a teenage son.
“This could offer parents a glimpse into how their children think and how they view risks and rewards,” Cazzell says. “Imagine having the ability to understand how people will respond to certain environmental stressors.”
Cazzell, a longtime pediatric nurse, began researching brain activity in adolescents and young people by studying impulsivity and reward-seeking behaviors. The exploration has eased her transition from nursing to academia.
“For 27 years I made a difference at the bedside,” she says. “But I have found there are many other ways to make a difference, and this research has the potential to make a difference on a big level.”