on do women act better under pressure than men?

is it really all the cortisol?


Many gender debates argue men act generally better under pressure than women do, evolution-related. Or in connection with other typical men attributes. I guess we won’t settle this debate today and I doubt that it is necessary at all. However, digging in this topic there are some interesting aspects and findings (only a selection be presented here):

Professor Alex Krumer from the University St. Gallen for example says that “women choke less”  He did his research in analyzing more than 8’200 games from Grand Slam tennis matches and says that tennis is a sport in which it is very easy to measure performance and competitive pressure. There is a clear winner of every point, game, set, and match and you can assess the extent to which victory in a particular game affects the probability of winning the match. And they have chosen Grand Sams for the analysis because the monetary incentives and ranking points are the largest and because they are the only tournaments that give the same prize money to men and women. However, men do play five sets in those matches, compared with three for women – but that makes it even more important for women to take that first set. Prof. Krumer and his team came to the conclusion that men are more affected by psychological momentum than women are. But Krumer also warns of generalization, he explains that one lab experiment has shown that women respond more positively to increasing pressure in a single-sex environment than they do in a mixed-sex one, while men perform better in the latter. As in most real-life arenas, especially in the labor market, women surely compete with men.


Prof. Krumer sees one of the explanations of their finding in the biology since the stress hormone cortisol increases more rapidly in men than in women, whereas testosterone, a proven performance enhancer, spikes after triumph and ebbs after defeat in men, but not in women, and that can lead to overconfidence. (Alison Beard, HBR, Nov-Dec 2017)


Mara Mather and researchers at the University of Southern California came to similar conclusions referring cortisol; the chemical process in our body leads to opposite behaviours in men and women.


In another study using the balloon game, the came to the conclusion that the two brain areas responded in the exact opposite way depending on whether the brain belonged to a man or a woman: the putamen and the anterior insula. The putamen gauges whether it is a good time to act and if it is it tells the rest of the brain to: “Act, and act now.” When a person makes a risky choice, the anterior insula sends out a signal: “Damn, this is risky.”

In men the putamen and the anterior insula both went on high alert. Men were thinking, at some level, both “Act and act now” and “Damn, this is risky.” It could mean that men were having highly emotional reactions to the risky decision, contrary to the way men are usually portrayed. In contrast, women showed the opposite response: these two brain areas being markedly quieted down in female subjects. It’s as though women were, without conscious intent, thinking: “No need to rush this” and “Let’s not take risks we don’t need to.” Compared with men, they weren’t feeling the same agitated, internal pressure to make hasty, risky choices. (Therese Huston, The Guardian, 26.06.2016)