Social Norms and gendered risk attitudes


By Elaine M Liu PhD, Associate Professor, Department of Economics, University of Houston


Many studies have found women to be more risk-averse than men.  Some have suggested that this difference in attitudes toward risk-taking could partially explain the difference in career choices between men and women, which could, in turn, lead to the gender wage gap. What is the origin of these gaps? Are these biological differences, or are they the result of social environment? how malleable is this gender gap in risk preference and what mechanisms could affect risk attitudes?

In our study, we seek to answer these questions by studying the risk-taking behaviors among the children of two ethnic groups in Yongning township, in Yunnan Province of China, with nearly opposite gender norms. Yunnan provides us with a rare setting in which children of the matrilineal Mosuo and the traditionally patriarchal Han attend the same schools, are taught by the same teachers, and interact daily.  Our sample includes first to fifth-grade, and seventh grade Mosuo and Han children; a total of 511 students. Within this setting, we examine how intermingling between children from these disparate cultural backgrounds would affect their respective gendered behavior.

The Mosuo and Han differ in many ways, but most notably they have distinctly different gender norms. The Mosuo are the only ethnic minority group in China that maintains a matrilineal culture.  A Mosuo family typically includes members bound by the ties of maternal kin, with the grandmother generally being the household head. Mosuo children are raised by the mother’s household, and the children’s father is often excluded from the household. In Mosuo society, women play an important role in the family decision-making. Conversely, Han Chinese have been influenced by Confucianism for thousands of years. The traditional Han family system is patriarchal and patrilineal. The household head of the family is typically the oldest male, who is responsible for major decisions. Kinship in Han families is passed down through the male descent line.

To elicit students’ risk preference, we conducted a survey and incentivised experiments. Students are presented with six lotteries, (3, 3), (2.5, 5), (2, 6), (1.5, 7.5), (0.5, 9), and (0, 10).  Each lottery has a 50/50 chance of winning high or low awards. Students are instructed to make one lottery choice and told that at the end of the experiment they will be paid based on their choice and the colour of the ball they draw.

What we find is that at age 7, Mosuo boys are slightly more risk-averse than Mosuo girls, but this difference is not statistically significant (p-value=0.12). However, this gender gap narrows over time and eventually Mosuo girls become more risk-averse than Mosuo boys by age 11 (p-value=0.004). In contrast, Han girls are more risk-averse than Han boys at age 7 (p-value=0.08), but by ages 11 and 12, there is no difference between Han girls and Han boys in their risk-taking behavior.

Many reasons could contribute to the emergence of this pattern for the Mosuo. For example, it could be due to mainstream media, which are predominantly Han. Or it could be due to the way teachers treat students. Unfortunately, with our dataset, we cannot look the causal impact of these factors on risk taking behaviors.  However, we can look at the importance of peers. We exploit the fact that some students’ cohorts happen to be a Mosuo majority cohort while others happen to be in a Mosuo minority cohort. We examine whether their ethnic group being a majority or minority in their cohort would affect their risk-taking behaviour over time.  We find that for Mosuo girls, if they are the minority in their cohort, the convergence (becoming more risk averse) would happen faster than if they were a majority in the cohort.  For Han girls, they would become more risk-loving only if they are in the Mosuo majority cohorts.

This analysis suggests the importance of socialisation on their behaviour. In the middle school sample, we use random assignment of room-mates to examine how rooming with people from the other ethnicity would affect one’s risk-taking behaviours. We find that Mosuo boys would become more risk-loving, when they room with more non-Mosuo room-mates.

There are a few limitations to our study. First, due to the budget and time constraint, our sample size is small.  For each grade/ethnic/gender group, we have roughly 10-20 students. More data collection would be needed to replicate the study. Second, most of our samples are pre-puberty. It could be possible that biological differences between male and female only arise post puberty, but we would not be able to observe that. Next, we have not examined other gendered preference or gender norms. It is not clear whether the pattern we have found for attitudes toward risk is unique. Last, we do not know whether the change in the children’s behaviour is temporary and that they are merely imitating other students or following other role models (e.g. teachers). Once the children leave schools and return to their villages, they might revert to their parents’ gender and culture norms. To address these limitations, we are looking for additional funding sources to conduct more field work, and these are questions worth pursuing in future work.



The article “Measuring the impact of interaction between children of a matrilineal and a patriarchal culture on gender differences in risk aversion” by Elaine M. Liu PhD and Sharon Xuejing Zuo PhD on which this blog is based is available in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (NPAS) at: