A reporter asked me some years ago if men’s greater willingness to bungee-jump and take other big risks might be due to some fundamental difference between their brains and women’s brains. While I ducked the question of brain function by saying that I was not a biologist, I said I thought differences in the way girls and boys were raised could explain their different behaviors.
Much more scientific research has been done since then, and it looks as though the reporter’s question may have been more on target than either of us knew at the time. New brain studies are helping to deepen our understanding of how the mind works and how people change. In particular, we’re learning that men and women are hard-wired in many areas to be as different as night and day.
One of the leading explorers of this landscape is psychologist and family physician Leonard Sax. Most recently the author of Why Gender Matters (Doubleday, 2005), Sax has opened my eyes to some of the many ways male and female brains develop differently from birth. He says, “Every step in each pathway, from the retina to the cerebral cortex, is different in females and males…. Girls and boys play differently. They learn differently. They fight differently. They see the world differently.”
It’s important for advisors to be able to reach male and female clients more effectively. While each individual is unique and will exhibit certain traits to varying degrees, this recently uncovered information can expand our insight into male-female differences, leading to new ways to bridge the gap between men’s and women’s worlds. Here are some of the research findings, with my ideas on how they may help you work more successfully with clients.
Focus: Gatherers vs. Hunters
Girls’ eyes have more P cells keyed to cones, which provide high-resolution details of what they’re looking at. Boys’ eyes have more M cells keyed to rods, which are more sensitive motion detectors. This difference is apparent even in infancy: baby girls are more likely to focus on people’s faces, while baby boys like to stare at mobiles twirling over them. Young girls tend to picture their world in terms of things (Mom, Dad, house) while boys focus on action (jets flying, rockets blasting off, villains getting blown away).
I asked Dr. Sax whether this might suggest that men tend to place more importance on movement and velocity in choosing an investment, while women are more interested in its nature.
Dr. Sax finds this hypothesis quite plausible. And Adam Kanzer, Director of Stockholder Advocacy for the Domini Funds, tells me there are more women investors than men in Domini’s socially responsible mutual funds. This fuels my belief that women are more interested in feeling “connected” to their investments, while men are more likely to be interested in performance ups and downs.
But clients’ blind spots may keep them from being satisfied later with their investment choices. To help them become better-rounded investors, consider educating women about the importance of past results, risk, portfolio turnover, and so forth, while encouraging men to be more aware of such “softer” issues as product quality and commitment to stakeholders.
Behind the “Strong, Silent Type”
Research as early as the late 1800s began to identify the areas of the brain that control certain kinds of functioning. In 1964, studies showed that there are very real gender differences in brain geography. For example, language resides in the left hemisphere of men’s brains, while the right side controls spatial concepts. By contrast, the language function is diffused throughout women’s brains, instead of being localized.
This is reflected in the different ways that emotions are handled. A recent study indicates that when adolescent girls experience negative emotions such as anger, humiliation, or sadness, much of the brain activity associated with their feelings moves to the cerebral cortex, an area connected with higher functions such as reflection, reasoning, and language. In boys, negative emotions remain in the amygdala, a more primitive part of the brain. I see this as a reason why men may react more quickly and explosively to negative emotions, while women are more likely to process and discuss these feelings.
A further consequence of this difference in brain structure is that it’s harder for men (or boys, for that matter) to talk about their feelings. When you ask a man, “How do you feel about XYZ?” it requires him to connect two parts of the brain that don’t normally communicate. Dr. Sax illustrates this with the Garrison Keillor joke about the man who said his marriage worked great because he and his wife rarely talked.
Thus, while it can make sense to ask a new female client, “How do you feel about coming here?” a man may respond better to a question about his thought process. Dick Vodra, an advisor in McLean, Virginia, suggests asking, “What made you pick up the phone and call me this time, after all the times you may have thought of it before?”
Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and an author whose work I have admired for years, says that when she explored the different ways each sex uses language, she was overwhelmed by the differences separating females and males at every age. Even the second-grade girls she studied were more similar to adult women in their use of language than they were to boys of their own age.
As a couples therapist for over 30 years, I have a lot of compassion for men’s challenges. I do believe it’s possible for a man to learn to find words to access his feelings, and the men who manage to stretch in this way assuredly have better relationships. An understanding of this difference in brain wiring can also help a woman develop more patience and tolerance in helping a man master this task, which is so difficult for him and comes so naturally to her.
Getting a Rush from Risk
Research shows that boys tend to exhibit riskier behavior when other boys are watching. Girls are less likely to be impressed by risk-taking behavior in their girlfriends, or to enjoy risk-taking for its own sake.
Why? Blame differences in the autonomic nervous system. In boys, risky activities typically trigger a rush that they find intensely pleasurable (think paintball games, demolition derbies, extreme sports). Dr. Sax mentions one study where youthful participants played a video game in which they risked a realistic-looking crash. Most of the boys felt exhilarated by the danger, while most girls said it made them feel fearful. In a related finding, girls tend to underestimate their chances of success in physically risky activities, while boys tend to overestimate theirs.
These different attitudes toward risk appear to have originated millennia ago. I’m fascinated by the conclusion of University of Alberta primate anthropologists Linda Fedigan and Sandra Zohar that male monkeys’ risk-taking behaviors cause them to die at a much earlier age than females.
Fast forward to human investors: no wonder men enjoy taking financial risks that most women shun. No wonder they take full credit for investment successes, while blaming their failures on outside influences. It’s just as obvious why women tend to underestimate their skill as investors, crediting their advisor or good luck when they succeed. In many cases, early socialization reinforces both sexes’ genetic predispositions.
Knowing how the male nervous system responds to the thrill of taking chances, you may be able to connect to risk-addicted clients with more insight and help them learn to mitigate these tendencies. By the same token, once you’re aware that female clients’ investment anxiety is not just acquired but inherited, you may be more successful in encouraging them to take necessary risks.
How We Learn
Given these brain differences, it’s no surprise that women and men prefer to learn in different ways. One cue comes from 2004 chimpanzee research in Tanzania. Female chimps tended to follow their teacher’s example, while male chimps preferred to do things their own way. We naked apes may not be as evolutionarily superior as we like to think, since (as Dr. Sax points out) boys are more likely than girls to consult their teacher as a last resort after all other options have been exhausted.