Originally posted on the New York Times by By

Credit: JooHee Yoon
 RECENTLY, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York said that if we want to fix the gridlock in Congress, we need more women. Women are more focused on finding common ground and collaborating, she argued. But there’s another reason that we’d benefit from more women in positions of power, and it’s not about playing nicely.

Neuroscientists have uncovered evidence suggesting that, when the pressure is on, women bring unique strengths to decision making.

Mara Mather, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Southern California, and Nichole R. Lighthall, a cognitive neuroscientist now at Duke University, are two of the many researchers who have found that under normal circumstances, when everything is low-key and manageable, men and women make decisions about risk in similar ways. We gather the best information we can, we weigh potential costs against potential gains, and then we choose how to act. But add stress to the situation — replicated in the lab by having participants submerge their hands in painfully cold, 35-degree water — and men and women begin to part ways.

Dr. Mather and her team taught people a simple computer gambling game, in which they got points for inflating digital balloons. The more they inflated each balloon, the greater its value, and the risk of popping it. When they were relaxed, men and women took similar risks and averaged a similar number of pumps. But after experiencing the cold water, the stressed women stopped sooner, cashing out their winnings and going with the more guaranteed win. Stressed men did just the opposite. They kept pumping — in one study averaging about 50 percent more pumps than the women — and risking more. In this experiment, the men’s risk-taking earned them more points. But that wasn’t always the case.

In another experiment, researchers asked participants to draw cards from multiple decks, some of which were safe, providing frequent small rewards, and others risky, with infrequent but bigger rewards. They found that the most stressed men drew 21 percent more cards from the risky decks than from the safe ones, compared to the most stressed women, losing more over all.

Across a variety of gambles, the findings were the same: Men took more risks when they were stressed. They became more focused on big wins, even when they were costly and less likely.

Levels of the stress hormone cortisol appear to be a major factor, according to Ruud van den Bos, a neurobiologist at Radboud University in the Netherlands. He and his colleagues have found that the tendency to take more risks when under pressure is stronger in men who experience a larger spike in cortisol. But in women he found that a slight increase in cortisol seemed actually to improve decision-making performance.

Are we all aware when our decision making skews under stress? Unfortunately not. In a 2007 study, Stephanie D. Preston, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Michigan, and her colleagues told people that after 20 minutes, they would have to give a talk and would be judged on their speaking abilities. But first, they had to play a gambling game. Anxious, both men and women initially had a harder time making good decisions in the game.

But the closer the women got to the stressful event, the better their decision making became. Stressed women tended to make more advantageous decisions, looking for smaller, surer successes. Not so for the stressed men. The closer the timer got to zero, the more questionable the men’s decision making became, risking a lot for the slim chance of a big achievement.

The men were also less aware that they had used a risky strategy. In the last few minutes of the game, Dr. Preston interrupted each person immediately after he or she had just lost money. She asked people to rate how risky each of their possible choices had been, including the unsuccessful one they had just made. Women were more likely to rate their losing strategy as a poor one.

In one interesting study, a team led by Livia Tomova and Claus Lamm, of the University of Vienna, found through three experiments that under stressful conditions, women became more attuned to others. In one, people reached through a curtain and touched something pleasant, like a feather or a cotton ball, or something unpleasant, like a slimy mushroom or a plastic slug. Each person could see a picture of what he or she was touching, and what another person was touching a few feet away, and had to rate the pleasantness of their respective experiences. Typically, people merge the other person’s experience with their own — if I’m touching something pleasant, then I’ll rate your slug-touching experience as nicer than I ordinarily would.

WHEN women were stressed, however, from having to give a public speech, they actually found it easier than usual to empathize and take the other person’s perspective. Just the opposite happened for the stressed men — they became more egocentric. If I’m stroking a piece of silk, that cow tongue you’re touching can’t be all that bad.