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Relative status regulates risky decision making about resources in men: evidence for the co-evolution of motivation and cognition


Relative social status strongly regulates human behavior, yet this factor has been largely ignored in research on risky decision making. Humans, like other animals, incur risks as they compete to defend or improve their standing in a social group. Among men, access to culturally important resources is a locus of intrasexual competition and a determinant of status. Thus, relative status should affect men's motivations for risk in relevant domains. Contrasting predictions about such effects were derived from dominance theory and risk-sensitive foraging theory. Experiments varied whether subjects thought they were being observed and evaluated by others of lower, equal or higher status, and whether decisions involved resources (status relevant) or medical treatments (status irrelevant). Across two experiments, men who thought others of equal status were viewing and evaluating their decisions were more likely to favor a high-risk/high-gain means of recouping a monetary loss over a no-risk/low-gain means with equal expected value. Supporting predictions from dominance theory, this motivation for risk taking appeared only in the equal status condition, only for men, and only for resource loss problems. Taken together, the results support the idea that motivational systems designed to negotiate a status-saturated social world regulate the cognitive processes that generate risky decision making in men. (c) 2008 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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