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February 18, 2013

"Foolishness" and Rational Decision Making

In the comments of an earlier post, Grim mentioned deciding not to read a book offered at Amazon because of the disdainful way the author wrote about women. The blog princess had a similar reaction to an item she ran across this morning. Which is a shame because if you can get beyond the dismissive post title, it was actually pretty interesting:

For the first time in human history, women and men commonly compete side by side. Most of the aggressive, ambitious, daring things we attempt to accomplish are done together.

But do men and women compete the same?

Many recent findings in scientific research reveal gender differences – differences in when they choose to compete, differences in risk taking during competition, different responses to the stress of competition, and different strategies for dealing with that stress.

Here's a quick summary of the studies, but do read the whole thing - you won't be sorry. In general, when deciding whether to compete men focus more on the size of a potential reward and will compete for it, even when their odds of winning are low-to-nonexistent. Women focus more on the odds of success, and downplay the size of the reward.

Earlier, I mentioned my irritation at the post title's characterization of male risktaking as "foolish". But the author notes that when the majority of these studies were covered by the media, their headlines were equally annoying and perjorative ("Women shrink from risks/competition", which turns out not to be quite accurate, rather than "Female willingness to compete is rationally related to the odds of success", for instance).

What is a "foolish risk"? Is that one you wouldn't take? Doesn't any rational analysis of risk vs reward depend on both the circumstances and what one values and wants out of life?

A young, single person of either sex can afford to take a few more risks than a parent with dependent children. Risks taken with one's own savings require (or ought to) a categorically different calculation than risks taken with other people's money. And at some point simple enjoyment of risk taking or competition poses its own reward, albeit a noneconomic one.

What particularly amused me about this set of studies was the repeated finding that women actually appear to approach risk assessment quite rationally. And by that rubric alone (expected return), the male propensity for risk taking looks decidedly irrational (at least if rationality is defined as realistically assessing the odds of success and acting to maximize the average return on investment). Gambling isn't a particularly rational activity, in that few gamblers win more than they lose.

But there are circumstances in life when risk taking makes sense even when the odds are against you. I tend to think that risk and competition can bring out the best in people as well as the worst. It's possible that this may be more often true of men than women, though it's also quite possible that a lot of what we think are hard wired differences between the sexes have more to do with the perceived benefits and risks than our internal or external plumbing:

If a proposed activity has more risks and fewer benefits for a certain group, shouldn't we expect the decisions of that group to reflect the risk-to-benefit ratio? And if this is the case, shouldn't we expect the decisions of both sexes to change when the risk/benefit balance changes? The clear implication here is that humans of both sexes adapt to their circumstances. Though we may tend more or less in a particular direction, we are not completely hard-wired to choose commitment or casual sex. To a far larger degree than we may wish to believe, our choices reflect our circumstances: we weigh the perceived benefits against the perceived harms that may result from our decisions. Change the circumstances, and we can expect different reactions.

Which, come to think of it, is pretty much what happens when men and women are prompted to think in specified ways. Interestingly, this effect is now being cited as one reason boys aren't doing as well in school, despite having been ridiculed as "silly" and unserious when it was cited as a possible reason girls lag behind in certain subjects.

We are still waiting to hear whether the idea is utterly ridiculous, or only ridiculous when it doesn't support certain arguments. We suspect it's the latter. :p

Posted by Cassandra at February 18, 2013 03:26 PM

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Comments

Which is why we should not choose women to lead bayonet charges. They're far too sensible. ;-)

Posted by: CAPT Mongo at February 18, 2013 05:36 PM

Bada boom!
Bada BING!!! :)

Posted by: Cass at February 18, 2013 05:48 PM

...it's also quite possible that a lot of what we think are hard wired differences between the sexes have more to do with the perceived benefits and risks than our internal or external plumbing...

Does this follow? Your article purports to demonstrate something like a 'hard wired... internal' difference in how men and women react to perceived benefits and risks.

That would suggest that changing the benefit/hazard calculus could eventually prompt similar behavior, but not because the risks/rewards were balanced for both parties. It would be because the risks had become skewed enough to overcome the natural differential response to risk-taking. Men would have to be facing substantially higher risks than women facing the same choices if we were to expect the same results.

Posted by: Grim at February 18, 2013 06:12 PM

By the way...

I don't think that risk-assessment is done in the rationalistic way the sociologists assume. The key question for me is not "How likely am I to win?" but "Do I think I am strong enough to ride it out if I lose?"

That being the case, the study looks different. Can I ride out a loss of five bucks? Sure! I'd have just blown it on a coffee at Starbucks on the way home anyway. But if I happen to win the $25, I can stop off at the pub instead. The odds of winning aren't really even important: all that matters is that the pain of the loss is within tolerances. As long as that's true, you'll run the risk every time. Or at least I will. :)

Posted by: Grim at February 18, 2013 06:15 PM

Your article purports to demonstrate something like a 'hard wired... internal' difference in how men and women react to perceived benefits and risks.

No, it doesn't actually. What it shows is that men and women responded differently. It shows NOTHING about the reasons for that difference -- whether it is genetic/physical or culture driven or situational.

There have been a whole slew of studies lately that try to account for social expectations and remove that source of bias, which you need to do if you're trying to figure out whether X or Y is "hard wired". Overwhelmingly, the results have shown so far that when social pressure/the fear of judgment is removed, the disparity between male and female results is minimal at best.

That suggests not hard wiring, but social conditioning.

You're ignoring the part of the linked post about what happened when women were primed to think either about family or career first - their decisions changed:

... it doesn’t take much to get women to compete more. In a recent study, the classic Niederle experiment was replicated with MBA students. The only change in the protocol was that right before doing the experiment, the MBAs were given one of two short surveys. One survey asked about their gender and family, and how many kids they had. The other survey quizzed them about their professional plans – what was their expected salary after graduation, et cetera. Women MBAs who took the family survey were reluctant to compete. Women MBAs who took the professional survey had no such reluctance. Even more of them wanted to compete than male MBAs.

To get women to compete, they need to be in a social context where competing is relevant to their success

If these traits were *truly* hard wired, women would respond the same whether you reminded them of familial duties or professional aspirations.

Why is it so important to you that the answer be proven to be one thing or the other? (as opposed, say, to people asking questions about whether these traits are totally or partially hard wired?)

The fact is that women ARE (and men ARE) making different decisions than they did before. That alone suggests that a lot of this is nowhere as "hard wired" as people want it to be.

I don't think that risk-assessment is done in the rationalistic way the sociologists assume. The key question for me is not "How likely am I to win?" but "Do I think I am strong enough to ride it out if I lose?"

Except in the middle study (the one where women weren't willing to participate in a winner take all contest) there was no real risk of loss.

The only thing women stood to lose was wasted time. So strength had nothing to do with the risk calculation.

Posted by: Cass at February 18, 2013 07:02 PM

Why is it so important to you that the answer be proven to be one thing or the other?

It's not. I'm just asking if the conclusion you're drawing really follows from the article. It doesn't read quite that way to me. Nor the one that you follow it with, under the heading "prompted to think in specified ways." It seems to suggest that women are really susceptible to gendered thought (there is a huge delta in female scores depending on whether they thought like 'typical women' or 'typical men'), and men much less so (both a smaller delta, and because both in the control and in the experiment they maintained overall scores in a different range than the women -- in this case higher, in the earlier article lower, but in both sets of articles different).

So it sounds like there is a real hardwire issue, which even pretty aggressive attempts to counter can't entirely eliminate. And that's interesting to me -- not that it accounts for everything, but that it's finally irreducible.

Except in the middle study (the one where women weren't willing to participate in a winner take all contest) there was no real risk of loss.

That's not an 'except,' actually. If there's no real risk of loss, then I would evaluate that by the same standard. Am I strong enough to survive no loss at all? Of course!

What I wouldn't do, though, is try to calculate the mathematical odds of victory. If the loss is within the range I can accept, the risk is a good risk pretty much every time.

Posted by: Grim at February 18, 2013 07:17 PM

It seems to suggest that women are really susceptible to gendered thought (there is a huge delta in female scores depending on whether they thought like 'typical women' or 'typical men'), and men much less so (both a smaller delta, and because both in the control and in the experiment they maintained overall scores in a different range than the women -- in this case higher, in the earlier article lower, but in both sets of articles different).

Yes, that one does but I've read quite a few others that mirror these results with men and boys. The difference seems to be when there's a stigma attached to being male or female and the subject is reminded of that stigma or stereotype before testing. So when boys are reminded that people think boys are not as good at X as girls, they perform worse.

On the other thing, personally I have very little interest in participating in contests because I don't usually enjoy beating other people. I have a very high interest in excelling at some things, but generally that is true where I see some benefit to balance the exertion required to do well. I got high grades in college because I needed high grades to get scholarships and avoid taking student loans.

But I really couldn't care less about winning for its own sake.

In college it was rare for me not to get the highest grade in the class. But that didn't make me happy. I had no serious doubt of my own abilities, but the obvious *unhappiness" of other students at being beaten bothered me very much.

Posted by: Cass at February 18, 2013 07:29 PM

Well, in college it has been rare for me to come anywhere near the highest grade in the class, but I assure you it hasn't bothered me. :) I think you learn best when you push the limits hardest, and the best way to make an A is to stay within the lines. I was far from the top score in Deductive Systems, one of our advanced logic classes, but I think I actually learned how to do logic better than some folks who came out with 100s on some of the tests. I didn't memorize the forms, but struggled with the mechanisms.

So I came out with a B+, because often I did creative things, and only sometimes does logic appreciate creativity. :) But in learning just why the creative thing wasn't permitted, I learned more.

Competing with others in the class, honestly, never occurred to me at all. I was competing with myself, and with the problems in front of me. But I am somewhat asocial this way: I don't often like to compete with other individuals, though I find the challenge others find in competition in my own ways.

Perhaps that is true for you as well?

Posted by: Grim at February 18, 2013 07:41 PM

An interesting recent book is The Hour Between Dog and Wolf, by a trader turned neuroscience researcher. It is principally concerned with the role of the body...especially hormones...in mental processes.

One question he addresses is: why aren't there more female traders? He dismisses the usual argument...that the trading-floor environment is too crude and tacky...by noting that there are a lot of women in *sales* positions in that very same tacky environment.

He argues that testosterone makes men better-suited for very rapid decision-making, as in trading, but that this is not a factor for slower-paced decision processes, as in portfolio management...where he indeed seem many more women than in trading per se.

He also argues that there is a potentially-dangerous testosterone loop, where success will drive higher testosterone levels which in turn drive higher risk-taking which in turn...and argues that men in jobs such as trading would do well to monitor their own testosterone levels and take a break when they are getting too high.

Posted by: david foster at February 18, 2013 09:42 PM

I think you learn best when you push the limits hardest, and the best way to make an A is to stay within the lines.

I can't honestly say that "staying within the lines" ever had much to do with earning a good grade in my experience, but we're in different fields.

In the vast majority of my college classes, you got a good grade if you did well on tests, research papers, or projects (in my case, "write a program that does X, Y, or Z) that required using the concepts covered in the course to do something. Most of my classes were math and/or computer science, so it wasn't possible to simply memorize answers. You had to know the material well enough to use it to think your way through a math problem or write a program or set up an accounting system and calculate various numbers.

There really were no "lines" to stay within, unless you mean something obvious like "don't write a program in Visual Basic for a class on C++", or "don't construct an accounting example that violates generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) and produces numbers that aren't correct". I suppose you could get all creative, but that doesn't demonstrate to anyone that you do in fact understand the material well enough to use it.

In my humanities and social sciences classes, I didn't really see many hard and fast lines either. I've written before that I wrote my final paper in my state-mandated diversity class on how focusing on "identity" issues holds minorities and women back and exacerbates existing divisions in society. My thesis was that we'd all be a lot better off if we focused on the things we have in common than by nursing grievances and asking other people to understand our pain :p

That was "staying within the lines" only inasmuch as I used copious examples from the literature (this was the assignment) to make my point. That I used them to make a different point was irrelevant, as the assignment wasn't, "Tell the teacher why she's right" but rather, "Write a paper on this general subject and back up your thesis with research".

Now I suppose I could have refused to do that, but I would have deserved an F even had I agreed with the teacher and the premises of the class. She didn't like my thesis much, but I still got an A. I imagine that happened because I built my case thoroughly and supported it well. It answered the mail, whether or not she happened to agree with me.

I'm often a bit confused by your frequent references to "staying within the lines" as a prerequisite to succeeding in school or in life. If you are to interact with other people on a job with specific requirements, it is rarely helpful to completely ignore the requirements of the task at hand (demonstrate that you have mastered this material, build a tool shed from pine) and go off on a tangent because the job bores you.

If what you need is a tool shed and you instead build a jacuzzi, you may have been creative but the job still isn't done.

I'm a little confused by this line of thinking. I've spent most of my life fighting my natural inclination to do things my way and learning to compromise and work with other people. Doing things my own way (for me) is easy and requires little effort. It's the natural thing to do.

Learning to work with others, or work within a system I didn't design, OTOH, is difficult and unnatural for me. It's also an essential skill unless you are lucky (!) enough to live on a deserted island where you never have to deal with other people or participate in society, which is - alas - a collective endeavor.

It seems to me that a large part of both primary and secondary education is to learn the artificial but essential skills needed for people to work together towards some end that is larger than their individual wants. Therefore, I find myself mystified when I hear conservatives (or you) seem to argue that it's all about following individual desires as though learning to "stay inside the lines" were something to be avoided rather than a big part of what makes civilization possible?

Posted by: Cass at February 19, 2013 06:36 AM

David:

I think you point about hormones is an excellent one. There's something I've been meaning to post for a long time. Perhaps now would be a good time?

I do believe that hormones influence our behavior. I spend a lot of time arguing that the differences between men and women are nowhere as large as advertised. I think this is a valid point, as in most cases male or female traits manifest as overlapping bell curves where the area of overlap is far greater than the disjoint areas.

That doesn't mean there aren't differences in the aggregate between men and women, but it does imply that hormones are far from the only influence on our behavior. Other factors (cultural differences in male/female behavior and roles) reinforce this theory.

In fact, I believe very strongly that the main purpose of the traditional emphasis on character, good habits, and morality was to moderate the influence of hormones and bring the mind/body/spirit equation into a more healthy balance. Most stabilizing institutions in society (the Church, marriage, families, the military) work to suppress or channel our natural instincts to some degree.

This is one area where I think social science reinforces the value of traditional morality. Many studies have shown that behavior and environment influence our hormone levels. Marriage and parenting, for instance, lower testosterone levels. I'm pretty sure being a mother amps up estrogen (that was my experience), though I haven't read any studies to that effect.

The feedback loop between behavior and hormone levels is fascinating to me. Previous generations didn't have scientists to tell them the mechanism, but they certainly were aware of the result: it's easier to stay faithful if you don't continually put yourself in positions where you will be tempted to cheat. The critical insight here is that increased opportunity isn't the only factor - there's also increased propensity that results from feeding your beautiful and natural urge to get jiggy with people you're not married to.

High testosterone is usually "blamed" for the urge to cheat, but it's interesting that women with high estrogen levels are statistically more likely to cheat too. In sufficient quantities, the very hormones that make men and women different predispose them to the same behavior.

Posted by: Cass at February 19, 2013 06:49 AM

I'm pretty sure being a mother amps up estrogen (that was my experience), though I haven't read any studies to that effect.

Yikes! I didn't finish this thought, did I? What I meant to say is that I found this a little confusing as a new mother, but I also believe that being in a good marriage makes both men and women gravitate to the center a bit. So I found that having my husband around when I was a parent moderated the estrogen thing and allowed me to be a more balanced parent.

Sorry - multitasking.

Posted by: Cass at February 19, 2013 07:34 AM

What I mean, Cass, is this:

In a math class, usually what you are taught is a kind of formula. "If you see a problem of this type," they say, "solve it in this way."

Now if you learn these rules, you can solve the problems that will be on the test, and you'll be able to do that for as long as you remember which forms go with which types of problems.

On the other hand, what I like to do once I have worked through a couple of problems in the formulaic way is ask anew how you might solve a problem of that type. What is it about the way that numbers relate to each other that makes it possible to get to the right answer?

There are often other ways of doing things that we aren't taught, because they are less efficient or more troublesome; and there are often things that seem reasonable that don't really work. It's in exploring those questions that you come to really understand the problem.

It's not really about individual desires, unless it's a desire to explore, or a desire to understand. It's about thinking differently about the opportunity presented by the class. Instead of a chore, where you have to memorize and reproduce forms of mathematical proofs, it becomes a chance to try to really grasp what numbers are like. Formal logic is like this too, only without the numbers: but what you're really exploring, if you go at it in the way I suggest, is what the structure of logic is like. It's different from learning the right form that will give you the right answer: it's learning just why that form, and not another, reliably does the work.

Posted by: Grim at February 19, 2013 09:19 AM

I don't have any problem with exploration.

I suppose it's just that I think there's a time and place for exploration and one for doing what you need to do to establish that you've mastered the material. My biggest problem with math for years is that I often solved fairly simple problems a different way -- and one that didn't show I had mastered the material. But the point of the exercise wasn't actually to explore, but to demonstrate that I knew something. And I hadn't shown that, and my grades reflected that (appropriately, I might add).

Most college math is a matter of understanding formulas well enough to recognize when to use them and when they don't apply. It's not enough to memorize them - if you don't understand how they work, they're unusable. It's really no different (in a way) from understanding when to use a miter saw and when to use a ball peen hammer in carpentry.

You could memorize the fact that miter saws are used to join angled pieces of wood for crown moldings and the the like, but that alone isn't enough to use a miter saw correctly.

There's nothing wrong with exploring. I do it all the time. But I guess I'm mystified by the suggestion (and this has been a repeated refrain in your writing and comments, and bears on something I've been wanting to write about) that students are penalized for exploring.

They're not, though. Unless they decide to use a graded event with a defined purpose for their own purposes. In that case, as with my refusal to solve math problems the way my teachers wanted me to, it seems pretty reasonable for grades to reflect that decision.

Now in fairness, you've said several times that you don't necessarily expect teachers to reward the tactic with a grade that certifies that you've done something that you actually have not done. But I think it's an important point.

When I was a kid, I thought, "What does it matter if I got the right answer?"

It matters (and mattered) because math is cumulative and you need to learn a before you learn b and c and d because they build on each other. The number one problem my math students had (aside from their refusal to put in the required time and effort) was gaps in their knowledge.

Posted by: Cass at February 19, 2013 09:33 AM

Cass...estrogen and the female sex drive...I thought I had seen research that it was *testosterone* that is correlated with higher sex drive in women...is this not correct? Or maybe some kind of estrogen/testosterone interaction?

Posted by: david foster at February 19, 2013 09:40 AM

...that students are penalized for exploring.

A lot of this has to do with the problem of trying to teach a lot of people a lot of material in a short period of time. Teachers are assigned the task of bringing a body of +/- 30 students from ignorance to proficiency in a complex and technical subject, in a period of time not longer than a few weeks. This requires a certain discipline among the students, of which mild penalties are a part.

A small penalty to encourage people to stay together, and all do it the same way, keeps the herd together and moving along the desired path.

My sense is that it's just not the best way to learn these kinds of things. I'm willing to pay for the extra opportunity to explore the problem and learn the deeper subject with a loss of grades; that seems to me to be a very good deal.

Usually other students make different choices, and get a different deal. They don't get the opportunity to develop their learning beyond memorizing which forms go with which kinds of problems, but they still get a tool that does the job (even if they aren't quite sure why it does the job reliably). On the other hand, they get an A in the class, which may help them insofar as future employers check their GPA.

So it's a tradeoff. I'm happy with the outcomes, and presumably the other students are as well, so there's no complaint here. I'm just saying that it's what drives me instead of (our original topic) competition with other students for high grades.

Posted by: Grim at February 19, 2013 09:57 AM

I thought I had seen research that it was *testosterone* that is correlated with higher sex drive in women...is this not correct? Or maybe some kind of estrogen/testosterone interaction?

The two aren't mutually exclusive, and I imagine there are interactions between the two.

I'm not sure whether "higher sex drive" and "propensity to cheat" are one and the same. Probably related, though. Interestingly, about 20% of naturally occurring estrogen in males is manufactured by the testicles (who knew???). Most of the rest is converted from other male hormones in fat cells.

So the male body was designed to produce estrogen just as the female body produces testosterone naturally.

Here's a link to one study on the estrogen/cheating link:

http://www.visajourney.com/forums/topic/172163-study-women-with-high-estrogen-levels-more-likely-to-cheat/

The link here appears to be that more estradiol makes a women more attractive and more likely to cheat. But the same is true of men and testosterone:

Masculinity, however, can come at a high price. Women often think of high-testosterone types as uncooperative, unsympathetic, philandering, aggressive and disinterested in parenting. In fact, there is evidence that they really do have more relationship problems than other men. In a small study led by psychologist James Roney at the University of California, Santa Barbara, 29 women were asked to look at photos of men and rate their masculinity and fondness for infants. (The men had already been tested for child-friendliness and testosterone levels.) The men who were rated as the most masculine generally had higher testosterone levels; the women also were generally accurate in assessing child-friendliness.

In another study of 2,100 Air Force veterans, men with testosterone levels one standard deviation above the mean were 43% more likely to get divorced than men with normal levels, 31% more likely to leave home because of marital problems, 38% more likely to cheat on their wives, and 13% more likely to admit that they hit or hurled things at them.

I remember taking the test in the linked article and I consistently chose the higher testosterone (more masculine) faces. Which is surprising, a bit, because I also have an extremely strong preference for men who are reliable and can be trusted.

Opposite hormones, similar (but not identical) effect. Interesting, no es verdad?

Posted by: Cass at February 19, 2013 10:12 AM

I'm happy with the outcomes, and presumably the other students are as well, so there's no complaint here. I'm just saying that it's what drives me instead of (our original topic) competition with other students for high grades.

Thanks for the clarification. FWIW, I'm (at least partially) responding to things you didn't actually say/write here, mostly b/c I've been thinking about an upcoming post in the background :p

Posted by: Cass at February 19, 2013 10:34 AM

Usually other students make different choices, and get a different deal. They don't get the opportunity to develop their learning beyond memorizing which forms go with which kinds of problems, but they still get a tool that does the job (even if they aren't quite sure why it does the job reliably). On the other hand, they get an A in the class, which may help them insofar as future employers check their GPA.

I think that's more true in some fields than others.

I definitely had classes where I was able to get an A largely by memorizing and parroting back. But I don't think it really applies well to any but the most basic math class.

In upper level classes, you have to understand what you're doing or you won't know when to do X and when to do Y. For example, I had students who did fine on homework (almost always a group of related problems using the same small group of concepts that built from simple to more complex in a predictable and sequential pattern) but fell apart on the tests, which featured unlike problems of mixed complexity.

Posted by: Cass at February 19, 2013 10:40 AM

My experience with the upper levels of mathematics is drawn from logic, rather than math proper. At some point you leave the classroom model and begin application in seminar, at which point you either have the concepts or you don't.

But many don't. I read a book recently published by Cambridge, by a top analytic philosopher named Bird, in which he makes a claim about an entailment relationship that is false as soon as you move from semantics to substance. Anyone who really understood what entailment means would see through the claim, but somehow it got through editing and publishing, and I haven't seen anyone calling him on it in a journal (although I haven't read every journal article related to the subject, to be sure).

So I wonder if the problem is that people are fooled by what they learned in logic class. All these people take it quite seriously, but the claim he is making is only semantically true. It isn't actually true. It's actually false.

Posted by: Grim at February 19, 2013 10:52 AM

Helpfully, Tex just made a substantially similar argument about mathematics as applied to engineering. The safety percentages are semantically true -- the model does produce them -- but not actually true. They are actually false. If you really understand how the models are built, you will see that they don't capture the reality they intend to model.

Posted by: Grim at February 19, 2013 10:54 AM

"So it sounds like there is a real hardwire issue" -- or, as Cass argues, if the difference in risk-taking has to do with the perception of the trade-off between the risk and the reward, then the difference will have a lot to do with the specifics of environment and not a heck of a lot to do with either neurology or hormones or whatever is the idea that is special about "Y"-chromosome thinking.

I'd have said that any risk-reward calculation is in trouble if we guess wrong about the size of either the risk or the reward. Some people focus on the reward and barely attempt to assess the risk. Some people are the opposite. Do women characteristically make the latter mistake while men make the former? Why is one mistake worse than the other? A successful risk-taker has to get both evaluations right.

Grim pointed out that what he thinks about is whether he can ride out the costs of losing. Cass seemed to be saying the same thing, but women traditionally are risking different things. If you've left the little lady and baby at home and are pretty sure you can replace them easily the next time you run into a village full of unguarded women, maybe it's easy to ride out the risk of sailing to the New World. A woman may think the baby at home is too hard to replace, or that a trip to the New World is too physically strenuous for a pregnant woman or young child, and therefore too costly in relation to the probability of fabulous wealth in gold and tobacco. Either may be wrong. Lots of guys sailed into the sunset never to return. Lots of women stayed home and missed out on California.

Also, women may be willing to risk things that men find intolerably dangerous in relation to their rewards, not because men are better at assessing risk but because they value different things differently. How risky is it to pick one man and give up the possibility that there are better fathers out there? Most women don't have much trouble with that trade-off; the chance that they might have picked a better mate seems small in relation to the rewards of stability. Men traditionally obsess over that trade-off.

I'm still chuckling over the idea that women excel academically because they're better at coloring between the lines. It used to be we couldn't let them study because we were sure they weren't up to it, or it would make their wombs wrinkle up or something. What to do if they get a chance to compete and start winning?

Posted by: Texan99 at February 19, 2013 12:44 PM

Marry them, of course. They're already used to winning all the time.

Actually, I wasn't talking about 'women' being better because they stay in the lines. (Although I suppose that makes some sense, given the recent article about boys getting lower grades because of behavior, given that they performed equally on standardized tests of aptitude.) I was thinking of that in non-gendered terms. Lots of people are grade-driven. Some are that way because they want to compete, and some because they want to please, but it's a major motivator for most students.

I just think it's sometimes worth trading a bit of the grade for some extra exploration. You end up learning more, I think. At least, for me, it's worth it.

Posted by: Grim at February 19, 2013 01:04 PM

...they don't capture the reality they intend to model.

That's my general opinions towards grades. Those who do truly understand and have mastery of the subject do generally score well.

I'm not so convinced that the reverse is true. I know a lot of dumb people who got "A"s.

I also know I learned a lot more from one of my classes where I got a low "B"s than I did in many of my classes where I got an "A".

Trying to tie it back into the topic. It very well be that there is some perceived value to the risks even if it results in a loss. Grim was willing to risk a loss of grades to "go outside the lines" because not only are the wins instructive but the failures resulted in learning as well. This changes the risk/reward balance when success and failure are seen as differently valued positives than when perceived as a positive v/s a negative.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at February 19, 2013 01:52 PM

Well, no grades are any more meaningful than the good judgment of the grader can support. There are easy As and hard Bs, just as there are easy schools and hard schools. All things being equal, though, if I thought a B student had achieved a better mastery of the subject from a particular class/professor than an A student in the same class, my conclusion wouldn't have to do with risk-taking, it would have to do with the teacher's inability to grade.

Of course, that doesn't tell us anything about whether the class material was worth mastering in the first place. If it was a pedestrian rehash of trivially "safe" information, then the right risk-reward decision might have been to pass it up entirely and spend the time and money in more challenging pursuits. Change schools, change majors, drop out of school altogether and learn on the job, etc.

Is there a gender pattern here? Do women stick to safe degrees rather than acquiring wild-card knowledge? It's the conventional wisdom that they do. Does that mean that women are making a worse risk-reward calculation? Maybe they roll the dice less, but that may mean not only that they win less often but that they also lose less often. Is that better or worse than shooting the moon?

Posted by: Texan99 at February 19, 2013 02:45 PM

My experience was that it's pretty easy to get a B even in a difficult class, but a *lot* harder to get an A in a hard class.

The effort curve goes exponential in the A- region - to get the extra few points I had to expend a lot more effort and know the material a lot better.

The interesting thing is that the modal grade for boys is still a B. For girls, it's an A.

Posted by: Cassandra at February 19, 2013 04:41 PM

...my point being that you'd think from all the shriekery that the difference was a lot bigger.

Posted by: Cassandra at February 19, 2013 04:42 PM

T99,

My guess (and it really is nothing more than that) is that the girls are more consistent. The guys may take more risks and consequently more hit the moon. But more also fall flat on their faces.

I'm not sure I'd call either one "better".

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at February 19, 2013 05:44 PM

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