With Britain embroiled in yet another banking scandal, commentators are once again pointing their fingers at the macho culture of the City. “Put a bunch of confident, aggressive men in the same room and reward them for taking risks,” Ian Leslie wrote, “and you create a pressure cooker, from which probity and prudence evaporate like steam.”
Now a study has cast new light on the role that masculinity may have played in past and present financial crises. Jonathan Weaver and his colleagues at the University of South Florida report that threatening a man’s sense of manhood makes him myopic and more prone to take risks, particularly in a public situation. The findings suggest that being surrounded by their sweaty, swaggering alpha-male peers may have provided just the kind of threatening environment to encourage bankers to become short-sighted risk-takers.
For an initial study, the masculinity of 19 heterosexual male university students was threatened by having them product test a pink bottle of “Sweet Pea” fruit-scented hand lotion; 19 others acted as a comparison group and tested a power drill. Ostensibly as part of a separate study, all the men were then filmed playing a gambling game. They started with $5 and had five chances to bet between $0 and $1 on whether a die roll would turn up odds or evens, with the potential to win or lose the amount they gambled. Over the course of the first four bets, the men who’d had their masculinity challenged tended to bet larger amounts; they also bet the maximum possible amount more often.
A second study was similar but this time the masculinity of half of 73 more men was threatened by having them recall 10 examples of times they’d behaved like a “real man”. Chuck Norris aside, because it’s difficult for most men to think of 10 examples off the cuff, this challenge has an undermining effect on their sense of masculinity. By contrast, thinking of 2 examples (as the remainder of the participants did) is easy for most men, and has the opposite, manhood enhancing effect. Next, all the men made a series of choices between smaller financial rewards now or larger rewards later. Half of the men in both groups thought they’d have to justify their choices publicly. The take-home finding here was that men who’d had their masculinity challenged, and thought their decisions would be public, tended to make more short-term choices, forfeiting about three times the amount of money available, as compared with men in the other conditions. Presumably acting impetuously in front of a crowd helped the men feel more manly.
Weaver and his colleagues acknowledged that the way they threatened the manhood of their participants was not a close simulation of the way that masculinity is threatened in a macho banking environment. However, they said that both their interventions had “the psychological consequence of reminding men that manhood is a precarious social status.”
“Whether manhood threats were directly implicated in the recent financial crises that continue to plague the US [and UK] economy, the current findings are at least consistent with such an interpretation,” they said. “Certainly, they are suggestive enough to warrant further investigation into this critically important question.”
A weakness of the studies was the lack of a genuine control group, in which masculinity was neither threatened nor strengthened. As mentioned by the researchers, it would also be useful for further investigations to observe the effect of gender threats on women’s risk-taking behaviour.
This new paper builds on several related findings that are pertinent to the role of a macho culture in the recent banking crises; for example: it’s been shown that men, but not women, take higher-risk financial bets when surrounded by same-sex peers of similar status; men make more myopic decisions in competitive all-male situations; and male stock traders in London made higher gains on days that their testosterone levels were higher (probably because they took more risks).
Jonathan R. Weaver, Joseph A. Vandello, & Jennifer K. Bosson (2012). Intrepid, Imprudent, or Impetuous?: The Effects of Gender Threats on Men’s Financial Decisions. Psychology of Men &; Masculinity DOI: 10.1037/a0027087