A new study suggests that gender stereotypes can have long-lasting influences on how we make decisions involving money.

By Amanda MacMillan
October 10, 2017

Research has shown that when women and men are put in the same situation involving a sum of money, the women tend to share that money more generously than the men. Now, a new study may provide some evidence as to why: The female brain responds differently to generous and selfish behaviors than the male brain, say researchers from the University of Zurich.

The study, published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, is the first to show a biological, gender-based tendency toward generosity. But the finding doesn’t mean that one sex is born to be more giving than the other, the researchers say.

The researchers were interested in looking at how the striatum—a part of the brain that’s active during decision-making and reward processeing—would respond in various scenarios. So they asked 40 adults to take part in brain imaging experiments in which they had to make decisions about sharing money with others or keeping it for themselves.

As expected, the striatum region of the brain was more active for women when they made “prosocial,” or generous, decisions, compared to when they made selfish choices. For men, the opposite was true.

Next, the researchers gave the participants drugs that blocked dopamine transmission in the brain, disrupting its “reward system.” Under these circumstances, women became more selfish and men became more generous—suggesting that certain medications can have effects on how generous people are, and that these effects can also vary by gender.

Lead author Alexander Soutschek, PhD, professor of economics at the University of Zurich, cautions that just because these differences were observed at the neurobiological level, that it doesn’t mean they’re hardwired from birth. Rather, he says, it’s likely that societal and cultural norms are to blame.

The reward and learning systems in our brains work in close cooperation, Soutschek explains, and studies have shown that girls tend to be rewarded with praise and positive feedback (more so than boys) for prosocial behavior. In other words, girls learn from an early age—and their brains adapt—to expect rewards for being altruistic.

“These stereotypes might function as self-fulfilling prophecies and produce the gender differences they claim to describe,” Soutschek says. “The differences in the brain might be the product of the internalization of these cultural expectations.”

Soutschek says he expected women to have stronger brain activation for prosocial behavior than men. But he was surprised that the difference between women and men was so extreme, and that men’s brains were actually activated by selfish behavior instead.

“If our explanation is correct, then our study shows how influential gender stereotypes in our society are, and that they even lead to gender differences in the brain,” says Soutschek. He hopes the research will encourage people to reflect on and perhaps question their own gender-based stereotypes, and the expectations they hold for men and women—and for and boys and girls.

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