Fear Distorts Reward Decisions Differently for Women and Men

Summary: Fear can significantly influence women’s preference for immediate financial rewards over larger, delayed ones, a decision-making bias known as “delay discounting,” while men’s choices remain unaffected by their emotional state. Involving 308 participants, the study found that women exposed to fear-inducing stimuli were more likely to opt for smaller, sooner rewards compared to their male counterparts and to women in joy or neutral emotional states.

These findings highlight the complex interplay between gender, emotion, and decision-making, suggesting evolutionary or emotion-regulation differences might underpin these observed disparities. While recognizing the study’s limitations in sample size and emotional range, the researchers call for further exploration into how negative emotions and gender impact intertemporal decision-making.

Key Facts:

  1. Emotional Influence on Decision Making: Women’s decision-making processes are more susceptible to being influenced by fear, leading them to prefer immediate rewards, unlike men whose decisions were not affected by emotional state.
  2. Study Methodology: Participants watched movie clips to induce fear, joy, or neutral emotions before answering questions that tested their preferences for immediate versus delayed financial rewards.
  3. Gender Differences in Emotional Impact: The study’s results suggest inherent gender differences in responding to emotional states, particularly fear, when making financial decisions, pointing towards potential evolutionary or emotion-regulation strategies unique to women.

Source: PLOS

Fear may affect women’s decisions in choosing immediate rewards versus larger delayed ones, while men’s decisions appear unaffected by emotion, according to a study published March 20, 2024 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Eleonora Fiorenzato, Patrizia Bisiacchi, and Giorgia Cona from the University of Padua, Italy.

Decision making is complex and still not fully understood, especially when weighing short- versus long-term benefits or costs. The known phenomenon “delay discounting” describes the common tendency to prefer an immediate reward rather than a later one, even if the later reward is significantly greater.

This shows a scared looking man and woman.
However, the suggestion that emotions (particularly negative ones such as fear) and gender do interact with regard to intertemporal choices warrants further investigation. Credit: Neuroscience News

In this study, Fiorenzato and colleagues examined how emotions like fear and joy, along with gender, affect decision making, especially when weighing immediate versus later rewards.

The authors recruited 308 participants (63 percent women, 37 percent men) via a social media survey.

Survey participants were shown a brief standardized and validated movie clip intended to induce an emotional state—for the fear group, this was a scary movie, like The Sixth Sense or Silence of the Lambs; for the joy group, this was a positive documentary clip with subjects like forests or waterfalls; the neutral affect group watched a documentary clip on urban environments. Then, the subjects were asked hypothetical reward questions such as: “Would you rather have €20,000 today or €40,000 after 3 years?”

Women in the fear group were significantly more likely to use “delay discounting” when choosing financial rewards (selecting the immediate, smaller amount) compared to men in the fear group or women in the joy or neutral movie groups. 

There were no significant gender differences for decisions made across the joy or neutral movie groups, and men’s decision-making on monetary rewards appeared to be unaffected by their emotional state.

The findings suggest that fear specifically might provoke different types of time-bound decision making for women versus men—the authors speculate these may be due to either differences in evolutionary strategies around safety versus risk, or different emotion-regulation approaches in stressful situations.

The authors note that the sample size and range of emotions studied here is relatively small compared to the real world. However, the suggestion that emotions (particularly negative ones such as fear) and gender do interact with regard to intertemporal choices warrants further investigation.

The authors add: “Women are more prone to choose immediate rewards when in a fearful emotional state than when in joyful one. Our research underscores the importance of gender as an influential factor in the interaction between emotions and decision-making processes.”

About this fear and decision-making research news

Author: Hanna Abdallah
Source: PLOS
Contact: Hanna Abdallah – PLOS
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Open access.
Gender differences in the effects of emotion induction on intertemporal decision-making” by Eleonora Fiorenzato et al. PLOS ONE


Gender differences in the effects of emotion induction on intertemporal decision-making

‘Good things come to those who wait’ is a popular saying, which goes along with numerous daily life decisions requiring trade-offs between immediate-small and later-larger rewards; however, some individuals have a tendency to prefer sooner rewards while discounting the value of delayed rewards, known as delay discounting.

The extant literature indicates that emotions and gender can modulate intertemporal choices, but their interplay remains hitherto poorly investigated.

Here, 308 participants were randomized to different conditions, inducing distinct emotions–fear, joy, a neutral state–through standardized movie clips, and then completed a computerized delay discounting task for hypothetical money rewards.

Following the induction of fear, women discount the future steeper than men, thus preferring immediate-smaller rewards rather than larger-delayed ones.

Also, women were more prone to choose immediate rewards when in a fearful condition than when in a positive state of joy/happiness. By contrast, men were unaffected by their emotional state when deciding on monetary rewards.

Our findings provide evidence that fear can trigger different intertemporal choices according to gender, possibly reflecting the adoption of different evolutionary strategies.

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  1. Sounds like women don’t like this study. According to science based in this comment field.

  2. No control, only 37% men instead of 50%, no scanning the brain to confirm actual fear in participants, one simple question asked which can easily change based on the individual and their individual finances. You discounted all social factors. I imagine men are more frequently exposed to violent media, since it’s directly marketed toward men, so fear would be lower across the board when exposed to scary imagery. I cannot imagine why the methodology fails to be robust, but any data gathered from this study may as well be discarded entirely. It was a waste of time and energy in this state!

  3. Because men, will race to quelch the cause of fear. Usually, they will use violence.
    Women, on the other hand, use their brain and look at the big picture and select a more innovative and creative method. One that results in a longer term solution.

  4. This study is filled with bias and has way too many extraneous variables to be considered for publication. No account or controls for age, sex, gender identity, socioeconomic status, different social medias attracting specific behavioural types, location, or factors like: illness, being primary care giver to elderly parents, having children involved, relationship status/living together or not, etc. The list could go on and the people who ran the study should know to not make claims like they have with the low number of participants, extraneous variables not accounted for, and overall poor study design leading to poor internal and external validity. This would not even get a C grade in an introduction psychology class on research design in an undergrad, and I’m genuinely confused as to how this was published.

    Properly done psychology studies do not make claims and definitives like “women do this and this”, it should be written like “the data is showing a trend in behavior like this and this.” – generally a good warning sign that a study may be biased or improperly conducted.

    Please take this down because this is so poorly done and misleading; posting this “study” will do more harm than good. Thank you.

  5. This is great. I believe it points to the survival mechanism designed in women to bare the burden of survival of the fitest. Women have eggs inside depending on their choices. If fear or danger is present they have to choose “the now” rather than macho/later. Thats why older men tend to mary younger women.

  6. Reading the article I have since the beginning the setong impression that the study is not scientific, flawed and senseless. I coach hundreds of managers, men and women, and I see that emotions, all emotions, affects decision making in all people with no significant difference between male and female. Please review your articlesbefore publishing.

  7. Speaking of evolutionary pressures on gender differences makes no sense, as that only drives differentiation between the sexes. The study did not explicitly say they included transgender people, so this is actually a study of sex-based differences. These basic errors is why people should not be using “gender” in scientific studies of this sort.

  8. This study is flawed and full of biases and it is wrong to approve studies like this based on gender. What if we were to do a study like this based on race? How would that go over? Not well. It does not go over well with me either. We know nothing about these people’s situations beyond this experimemt, their ages, whether children are in the picture, and many more factors that would lead someone to choose a reward now. Maybe these women had been promised rewards in the past if they waited and it did not pay off. Waiting does not always mean a bigger pay off,especially in the real world. Your experiment is not the real world and it is flawed and oversimplified. How can you call this science? I am disappointed and ask you to take this down. Also, do not do such sloppy work in the future. Where are your peer reviews?

    1. 100% agree with you. This sounds more like something a barely passing L5 university student would submit than the work of creditable researchers. Merely citing sample size as a limitation of the study without accounting for the variables you mention is sloppy at best. I would also hope this is taken down, or at least amended to reflect the points you raised.

Comments are closed.