Room composition effects on risk taking by gender


We present evidence of a direct social context effect on decision-making under uncertainty: the gender composition of those in the room when making individual risky decisions significantly alters choices even when the actions or presence of others are not payoff relevant. In our environment, decision makers do not know the choices made by others, nor can they be inferred from the experiment. We find that women become more risk taking as the proportion of men in the room increases, but the behavior of men is unaffected by who is present. We discuss some potential mechanisms for this result and conjecture it is driven by women being aware of the social context and imitating the expected behavior of others. Our results imply that the environment in which individual decisions are made can change expressed preferences and that aggregate behavior may be context dependent.

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  1. 1.

    The design is based on Gneezy and Potters (1997). It is a simple design that requires participants to make a choice between how much to invest in a risky and safe lottery (Charness et al. 2013).

  2. 2.

    Gender differences in development and behavior appear early in life (McClure 2000; Zahn-Waxler et al. 2008; Baron-Cohen et al. 2005). One of these differences is that girls are better at reading the social environment than boys.

  3. 3.

    See Eckel and Grossman (2001) for gender composition in ultimatum games, Gneezy et al. (2003) for tournaments, Bogan et al. (2013) for risk decisions of groups, Charness et al. (2007) for public and private decisions, Lindquist and Säve-Söderbergh (2011) for decisions in Jeopardy’s daily double, Cooper and Rege (2011) and Rohde and Rohde (2011) for peer effects in risky decisions, and Ambrus et al. (2015) for aggregation of individual risk preferences.

  4. 4.

    In Booth and Nolen (2012), adolescent boys and girls are randomly assigned to sit in 4-person groups in a large auditorium and complete five tasks in total, including a maze tournament with their group prior to choosing in a binary-choice lottery task.

  5. 5.

    This also speaks to Manski’s (2000) point that peer effects are difficult to identify because they are confounded by information and strategy.

  6. 6.

    At the first two sites, there are 21 8-person sessions and 14 6- and 7-person sessions. From the 8-person sessions, 6 of the 42 rooms are single-sex.

  7. 7.

    At the third site, there are 12 8-person sessions, with 6 rooms each of (4 w, 0 m), (3 w, 1 m), (1 w, 3 m) and (0 w, 4 m).

  8. 8.

    We find no evidence that room composition is correlated with either experimenter.

  9. 9.

    When we combine 6-, 7- and 8-person sessions, there are 356 participants, 47 sessions and 94 rooms (74 4-person rooms and 20 3-person rooms). In these pooled data, the distribution of gender composition of the rooms is: 9 all-women rooms, 24 rooms with one man, 18 of equal number of men and women, 27 rooms with one woman and 16 all-men rooms.

  10. 10.

    In the pooled 6-, 7- and 8-person sessions, 55.3% are male, 53.1% are White, 18.3% are Black, and 16.6% are Asian.

  11. 11.

    Manski (1999) would call this a contextual effect (e.g. the propensity of the individual to behave in some way varies with the distribution of background characteristics of the group).

  12. 12.

    Most participants (93.2%) are consistent, in that the average amount of money invested in lotteries with an expected payoff of $1 or more is at least as large as for those with an expected payoff of less than $1. On average, men are more consistent than women: 97% and 88% respectively.

  13. 13.

    All results hold if we instead specify gender composition with dummy variables for whether the participant is the minority sex in the room or the room is composed of all the same sex. Women put more money in the lottery when they are the minority sex in the room. Results in Table 1 also hold if lotteries are grouped by expected payoff of> $1, = $1 and< $1 (see Online Appendix).

  14. 14.

    An ordered logit is preferred in this setting because the investment decision may be nonlinear. The return of a dollar invested in the lottery is different across lotteries and the marginal utility of a dollar gained could be decreasing as gains increase (in the case of a risk averse individual). The coefficient associated with the proportion of men in the room is 1.68, the odds conditional on a 0.75 unit increase in this variable is \(exp(1.68\times 0.75) \sim 3.5\).

  15. 15.

    In a pooled regression with a dummy variable for being male and interaction terms with all the independent variables for the specification in Column 1, the coefficient on the interaction term on the proportion of males in the room is − 2.34 (p value of 0.088).

  16. 16.

    Without the all-female sessions, the coefficient on the proportion of males in the room is 1.65 (p value = 0.071) for women and − 0.77 (p value = 0.444) for men. Without the all-male sessions, these are 1.68 (p value = 0.074) and − 1.16 (p value = 0.284) respectively. Testing the gender difference in response yields a p value of 0.087 without the all-female sessions and 0.053 without the all-male sessions.

  17. 17.

    Gender stereotypes of risk attitudes have been found to be persistent (see Grossman 2013; Grossman and Lugovskyy 2011).

  18. 18.

    The total time to finish the task is the time it takes the participant to complete and submit all eight decisions. The correlation for women is − 0.333 (p value = 0.000) and for men is − 0.226 (p value = 0.006).

  19. 19.

    Kocher et al. (2013) find that risk aversion over gains is not affected by being rushed while risk aversion over pure losses actually increases.

  20. 20.

    There is no significant effect of the number of mouse clicks on the average risky investment. Coefficients on the average number of clicks by others on average risky investment are − 0.005 (p value = 0.209) for women and 0.004 (p value = 0.378) for men.

  21. 21.

    This procedure elicits a participant’s belief about the modal $3 interval for the average bet of others.


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Castillo, M., Leo, G. & Petrie, R. Room composition effects on risk taking by gender. Exp Econ 23, 895–911 (2020).

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  • Gender
  • Decision context effects
  • Risk aversion
  • Experiment

JEL Classification

  • C91
  • D81
  • J16