Competitive Risk-Taking Extends Until Age 50 A new study finds that adults are willing to compete based on knowledge, skills and monetary rewards for several decades longer than anticipated.

The researchers, composed of economists and psychologists, were surprised that the risk-taking behaviors continued until an individual reached 50, after which the behavior begins a downward slide.

Over the past decade, research on the impact of gender differences and risk-taking across the lifespan has emerged as an important theme, said Ulrich Mayr, professor of psychology at the University of Oregon.

Mayr and colleagues started their inquiry in summer 2010 with a group of Eugene high school students.

After receiving training on the nuances of conducting research, the students went to a Eugene shopping mall, set up a kiosk and recruited more than 800 adult volunteers.

Participants were given a choice to solve some simple math problems and receive a small cash reward for each correct answer or potentially earn a larger payoff if they won in competition with others.

In a paper appearing online ahead of publication in the journal Psychology and Aging, the researchers report that the willingness to enter competition to achieve a bigger payoff continues to rise for all adults — men slightly more than women — until they get into their 50s.

The results were drawn from 543 of the adults in the study who were ages 25 to 75. The 281 men and 262 women were relatively well-balanced across age brackets of 25-34, 35-44, 45-54, 55-64 and 66-74.

“Competitions are really important as people go after resources, political positioning, college admission, jobs and the like,” Mayr said.

“How well you perform in them determines your success. Maybe it’s all about choices people make. The results of our study were striking and novel.”

“We expected to find the competitive risk-taking going down,” Harbaugh said. “Seeing it going up to age 50 was surprising.”

Before this study, experts believed risk-taking behavior declines after about age 25. Earlier research also has shown that cognitive performance declines as people age, with hormone levels such as cortisol and testosterone going down.

“The general notion,” Mayr said, “has been that as you grow older, achievement is not as important anymore.”

Earlier studies also had documented that women, especially college-aged, were less likely than men to participate in competition.

“The gender difference didn’t go away in our study,” Harbaugh said. Interestingly, the researchers found that these gender differences “extend across the lifespan, remaining virtually unchanged between 25 and 75.”

Taking risks to achieve rewards has huge consequences, he said. It is a behavior that is fundamental in the business world, he said, whether a person is launching a startup company or a restaurant, for example.

“We need to understand this drive and gender differences that might be at play. While we saw parallel curves for men and women across the lifespan, it was slightly less strong for women. What are the consequences for men and women?”

Source: University of Oregon

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