Business Psychology

Article No. 323t
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

The Mating Mindset

New research increases our understanding of risk tolerance.

On any given day, trucking firm owners can look out the windows of their offices and watch big rigs pulling out onto access roads that lead to the nearest Interstate Highway, and it�s not hard to understand their feelings as they watch. It�s a sobering moment, and they can be forgiven for an uneasiness that can lead to a few prayers. Heading out to an uncertain fate goes a 120-thousand-dollar tractor, a 40 thousand dollar trailer, and 40 thousand dollars worth of freight, and it�s all in the hands of one driver. If we could listen to a few of these prayers, we might hear mention of the weather, traffic conditions, and road conditions, and if we continued to listen, we might hear a plea for good judgment by the driver . . . to reject unnecessary risks and bring the rig (and himself/herself) safely to its destination.

Driver judgment might be included in management prayers because it is sometimes lacking. Drivers do occasionally display alarmingly poor judgment. They drive into blizzards, white outs, and dust storms. They get blown onto their sides when they ignore high wind warnings. They drive into flood water flowing over roads and bridges. They drive over black ice and jackknife themselves into the median, and they fall asleep and crush their rigs and themselves on bridge railings and overpass supports.

Why do they do that?

Patrick McAlvanah, from the Bureau of Economics at the Federal Trade Commission, recently completed a study which sheds light on this question, but before we learn about his findings, we should give the drivers a chance and listen to their thoughts, for in the cabs of all those trucks that pass on the highway are people who assess risk and make decisions. All day long. Over and over. And they do it under pressure to perform, to get their trucks in on time. If they are too cautious, the company loses money, and they lose their jobs, but if they take a chance and lose big, then they can lose their lives. The company president doesn�t pay this price for a mistake. Still, there are moments when drivers find themselves in trouble and inwardly groan as they realize how they got into the difficulty. Why, they ask, did they take that chance?

Patrick McAlvanah studies risk. He measures people�s tolerance for risk, and his measurements are very precise. It�s impressive to watch, and once he has taken his measurements, he tinkers around and looks for factors that change people�s risk tolerance without them knowing it has happened. He�s concerned about truckers� occasional lapses of good judgment, and he�s concerned about anyone who needs to maintain good judgment. Fortunately, one recent experiment revealed a powerful factor that drastically increased his subjects� tolerance for risk, leading them to take much more risky actions, and they didn�t even know it had happened. Here�s the story:

McAlvanah measured the risk tolerance of 227 college students. Next, he divided them into four groups and asked them to complete two exercises. The first group rated 10 pictures of attractive, opposite-sex people, then they sorted 10 more pictures from most to least attractive. A second group completed the same task, but they were given pictures of unattractive opposite-sex people. A third group did the same two tasks using attractive pictures of cars, and a fourth group did the tasks using unattractive pictures of cars. Finally, McAlvanah took a second measurement of the risk tolerance of all the students.

People who spent time looking at cars revealed no change in their risk tolerance. Nothing had changed for them. People who spent time with pictures of the opposite sex changed quite a bit. They were much more tolerant of risk, and the bigger the gamble, the more willing they were to accept the risk. It didn�t matter if it was men or women rating and sorting the pictures. It didn�t matter if the pictures were attractive or unattractive. The pictures of opposite-sex people caused their judgment to change . . . caused them to accept great risks that 20 minutes earlier they had refused to do. His subjects weren�t aware of the change.

McAlvanah calls this a mating mindset, and it conjures images of teenage boys racing their cars and teenage girls stripping down to the bare essentials before heading out to flirt with all the boys. These actions, and many others, are all in the service of basic reproductive drives. McAlvanah found that triggering this mindset occurs easily and out of the awareness of the individual, and it results in dramatically lowered tolerance for risk.

What to do?

The useful finding in this study concerns the awareness of people as these changes in risk tolerance occur. People are unaware, so the obvious antidote is to make them aware . . . take an unconscious change and make it conscious. Take something that happens accidentally and make it deliberate. Training this awareness is something that has to occur between supervisors and drivers over many conversations and many days, but a useful first step would be to hand this article to a driver and ask him to read it.

Reference: McAlvanah, Patrick (2009) Are People More Risk-Taking in the Presence of the Opposite Sex? Journal of Economic Psychology, 30 (2009), 136-146.

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