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Rice University research finds that gender does matter when taking risks in business

Men are more prone to take risks for personal financial gain than women, and women are more likely than men to take risks to protect themselves from financial loss. Pexels

When motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel leapt over cars, vans and fountains, it was little surprise that the person pulling those stunts was a man. That's not to say women never partake in high-risk behavior (Danica Patrick, anyone?). But decades of research confirm that men really are more inclined to take risks.

Snake River Canyon and the Indy 500 aside, economic life offers plenty of risks as well. When these risks involve investing, men under certain circumstances are more likely than women to take dangerous leaps, but why?

Rice Businesses professor Vikas Mittal joined Xin He of the University of Florida and J. Jeffrey Inman of the University of Pittsburgh in three studies to examine why men and women engage in risky business. Specifically, the team wanted to test whether each gender's risk-taking was moderated by a trait called issue capability: a decision-makers' belief that he or she can solve an issue.

The team grounded their work in agency-communion theory. This posits that men are more driven by goals that further self-interest ("agentic" goals) and women are more driven by goals that further coexistence ("communion" goals).

Based on this theory, the researchers hypothesized that men making investment decisions would take greater risks as their issue capability rose. This would occur because men, who are more focused on maximizing gains, would become more risk-seeking as their self-capability perceptions increased.

Conversely, the researchers theorized, women who faced similar investment decisions would focus on avoiding loss — even when their issue capability rose. This fundamental difference in investing perspective — men trying to maximize any gain versus women trying to minimize any loss – would be at the heart of a diametrically opposite stance on financial risk-taking.

All three studies proved the theory to be correct.

In the first study, the researchers asked men and women to wager money on Daily Double questions in "Jeopardy!" The male contestants with higher issue capability (i.e. demonstrated knowledge of the category) took the biggest risks. The women contestants showed equal levels of betting behavior regardless of whether they had high issue capability or not.

In the second study, the researchers dove into the psychology underlying gender and issue capability. First, the researchers primed male and female participants to believe they had either good or bad track records with risky investment decisions. Then they asked both groups to imagine they could invest $20,000 at varying levels of risk.

When it came to investing for gains, the researchers found, the women's beliefs about their issue capability made no real difference in their financial choices. Even after they had been primed to think they were highly capable investors, the women participants were less prone than the men to focus on the upside potential

And the men? Those who believed they were "capable" made the riskiest investment decisions. They also reported the highest number of thoughts about the positive potential of the various investment scenarios. Statistical analysis proved that these gain-maximization thoughts egged them on in their risk-taking.

On the other hand, those male participants who weren't primed to feel capable showed risk-taking patterns identical to that of the female participants. The results, in other words, suggest that the key difference between men and women's risk-taking is not innate — but stems from their self-conviction in investment competence.

The third study examined these processes in yet another way, by giving female and male participants the chance to maximize gains through making investments in stocks, or to minimize losses through buying insurance. Once again, the men primed to see themselves as ace investors made the riskiest investments. The women who felt themselves especially capable kept their risk-taking steady.

The women's behavior only changed when they thought they were subpar investors. When both women and men were told they were stock market duds, the women were more likely than the men to buy insurance — in other words, to take traditional measures to defend against loss.

Risk-taking choices, in other words, can no longer be written off as just boys being boys or girls being girls. More accurately, boys will be boys when a male investor thinks he is especially capable and that taking a risk will benefit him personally. That's not always a good thing. A female investor, who will typically focus on minimizing potential loss, can contribute a lot to investing decisions. Taking a big risk, as many an investor knows, isn't always the best move.

Mittal's findings inspire a list of possibilities for future research. What will happen to these behaviors as more women assume leadership jobs and more men get to show their skill as caregivers? Should senior management teams have both male and female representation to balance out the upsides and downsides of investment decisions? What about at home: would household decisions change for the better if both the man and the woman contributed their perspective?

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This story originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom.

Vikas Mittal is the J. Hugh Liedtke Professor of Marketing at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

Breakthrough research on metastatic breast cancer, a new way to turn toxic pollutants into valuable chemicals, and an evolved brain tumor chip are three cancer-fighting treatments coming out of Houston. Getty Inages

Cancer remains to be one of the medical research community's huge focuses and challenges, and scientists in Houston are continuing to innovate new treatments and technologies to make an impact on cancer and its ripple effect.

Three research projects coming out of Houston institutions are providing solutions in the fight against cancer — from ways to monitor treatment to eliminating cancer-causing chemicals in the first place.

Baylor College of Medicine's breakthrough in breast cancer

Photo via bcm.edu

Researchers at Baylor College of Medicine and Harvard Medical School have unveiled a mechanism explains how "endocrine-resistant breast cancer acquires metastatic behavior," according to a news release from BCM. This research can be game changing for introducing new therapeutic strategies.

The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and shows that hyperactive FOXA1 signaling — previously reported in endocrine-resistant metastatic breast cancer — can trigger genome-wide reprogramming that enhances resistance to treatment.

"Working with breast cancer cell lines in the laboratory, we discovered that FOXA1 reprograms endocrine therapy-resistant breast cancer cells by turning on certain genes that were turned off before and turning off other genes," says Dr. Xiaoyong Fu, assistant professor of molecular and cellular biology and part of the Lester and Sue Smith Breast Center at Baylor, in the release.

"The new gene expression program mimics an early embryonic developmental program that endow cancer cells with new capabilities, such as being able to migrate to other tissues and invade them aggressively, hallmarks of metastatic behavior."

Patients whose cancer is considered metastatic — even ones that initially responded to treatment — tend to relapse and die due to the cancer's resistance to treatment. This research will allow for new conversations around therapeutic treatment that could work to eliminate metastatic cancer.

University of Houston's evolved brain cancer chip

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A biomedical research team at the University of Houston has made improvements on its microfluidic brain cancer chip. The Akay Lab's new chip "allows multiple-simultaneous drug administration, and a massive parallel testing of drug response for patients with glioblastoma," according to a UH news release. GBM is the most common malignant brain tumor and makes up half of all cases. Patients with GBM have a five-year survival rate of only 5.6 percent.

"The new chip generates tumor spheroids, or clusters, and provides large-scale assessments on the response of these GBM tumor cells to various concentrations and combinations of drugs. This platform could optimize the use of rare tumor samples derived from GBM patients to provide valuable insight on the tumor growth and responses to drug therapies," says Metin Akay, John S. Dunn Endowed Chair Professor of Biomedical Engineering and department chair, in the release.

Akay's team published a paper in the inaugural issue of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine & Biology Society's Open Journal of Engineering in Medicine and Biology. The report explains how the technology is able to quickly assess how well a cancer drug is improving its patients' health.

"When we can tell the doctor that the patient needs a combination of drugs and the exact proportion of each, this is precision medicine," Akay explains in the release.

Rice University's pollution transformation technology

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Rice University engineers have developed a way to get rid of cancer-causing pollutants in water and transform them into valuable chemicals. A team lead by Michael Wong and Thomas Senftle has created this new catalyst that turns nitrate into ammonia. The study was published in the journal ACS Catalysis.

"Agricultural fertilizer runoff is contaminating ground and surface water, which causes ecological effects such as algae blooms as well as significant adverse effects for humans, including cancer, hypertension and developmental issues in babies," says Wong, professor and chair of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering in Rice's Brown School of Engineering, in a news release. "I've been very curious about nitrogen chemistry, especially if I can design materials that clean water of nitrogen compounds like nitrites and nitrates."

The ability to transform these chemicals into ammonia is crucial because ammonia-based fertilizers are used for global food supplies and the traditional method of creating ammonia is energy intensive. Not only does this process eliminate that energy usage, but it's ridding the contaminated water of toxic chemicals.

"I'm excited about removing nitrite, forming ammonia and hydrazine, as well as the chemistry that we figured out about how all this happens," Wong says in the release. "The most important takeaway is that we learned how to clean water in a simpler way and created chemicals that are more valuable than the waste stream."