Risky Domains

“Nice guys finish last.”

Most of us have either spoken or heard this phrase at some point? There seems to be cultural understanding that being the “bad boy” (i.e. being confrontational, acting impulsively, and taking physical risks) somehow earns attraction points, whereas being the “nice guy” doesn’t. Whether or not being a bad boy actually attracts women, research shows these behaviors are in fact associated with men’s mating motivation (i.e. desire for a mating partner). Unfortunately, there are a lot of obvious risks in these behaviors (e.g. starting a fight with the wrong guy).

However, a large amount of research in a different field of psychology shows that people are generally loss averse — they show a tendency to weigh losses more strongly than objectively equivalent gains. From an evolutionary standpoint, this supports the idea that people had to pay more attention to the risks they took to avoid loss (not catching food and going hungry) than to achieve gains (catching extra food that may or may not be needed). Therefore, if we are evolutionarily designed to avoid loss, why are men behaving in ways that carry a lot of risk and potential for loss?

Researchers Yexin Jessica Li, Doug Kendrick, Vladas Griskevicius, and Steven Neuberg proposed that the brain is domain-specific — it employs “somewhat different information as input and operating according to somewhat different decision rules adapted for solving problems in that domain.” Thus, they argue that because men evolutionarily haven’t dedicated as much physiological energy, they never developed loss aversion in the domain of mating. Men may even be more likely to take risks to potential earn a mate. Women, on the other hand, dedicate a lot of physiological energy, so loss aversion is just as salient for them in the domain of mating.

To show that the effect of loss aversion was erased in men (but not women) during mate-seeking, researchers elicited mating motives in both sexes, then tests participant loss aversion and gain seeking (e.g. how much would you pay to improve/prevent a worsening of your life; how happy/sad would you be if you gained/lost x amount of money). Across 3 studies, Li et al. found that compared to a control group, men were significantly more likely to seek gains when primed for mating, whereas women showed no significant difference when primed.

So what? Loss aversion has earned a lot of attention in the scientific community by indicating that people do not always make objectively rational decisions when dealing with potential losses and gains. Many lines of research try to find out how strong this aversion is, or how it can be canceled out. This study, however, shows that loss aversion is not universal, and suggests moving away from the “domain-general bias” and towards investigations of domain specific traits. Li et al. write that “future research is poised to investigate how the myriad of supposedly domain-general decision biases actually operate in light of various evolutionarily relevant motives.” In other words, situations and motives are different; therefore, the decision processes should be, too.

Article:

Yexin Jessica Li1, Douglas T. Kendrick1, Vladas Griskevicius2, and Steven L. Neuberg1 (2012)
1Arizona State University; 2University of Minnesota
Economic Decision Biases and Fundamental Motivations: How Mating and Self-Protection Alter Loss Aversion
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102, 550-561

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