Protective instinct: Women less likely to take risks around babies (even if it's not theirs)
In contrast, men don't alter their risk-taking behaviour around youngsters



12:16 GMT, 18 April 2012

The maternal instinct is one of the most powerful in nature – now scientists have found it applies to women even if they don't have children.

Scientists found that women were significantly more cautious when
they are partnered with small children in a gambling game measuring
their attitude to risk.

However, men didn't substantially alter their willingness
to take a chance if a baby is present.

Protective instinct: Women are more reluctant to take risks if a baby is present

Protective instinct: Women are more reluctant to take risks if a baby is present. Scientists said this showed evolutionary forces at work

Researchers from the University of Warwick and the University of Basel said this could be an example of evolutionary forces at work.

Men are probably more competitive and risk-seeking in order to establish status while women are more risk-averse in order to protect offspring.

The team observed 80 students playing a gambling game while alone and while paired with either an image of an attractive man, woman or baby with whom they imagined they would share their winnings.

The participants accumulated cash while pumping up a computer-simulated balloon which could explode randomly at any moment.

As the game progressed, participants had
to decide whether to stop pumping and “bank” the winnings – or whether
to continue and risk the balloon exploding and all the cash being lost.

A second less surprising finding of the study was that men took more risks when partnered with other men – consistent with theories suggesting that men are driven to compete with other men in order to maximise their reproductive opportunities.

This particular finding has parallels in the real world where studies have shown that men in committed relationships show less risky behaviour as they no longer need to compete with other males to gain a woman's attention.

Dr Thomas Hills of the Department of Psychology at the University of Warwick said: 'To our knowledge this is the first study to look directly at the effect of babies on male and female risk-taking.

'Our attitudes to risk form a big part of our personality and determine our behaviour in all sorts of areas – for example how we approach financial investments or what leisure activities we indulge in.

'Even though the women in the study were not the mothers of the babies they paired with, just having a baby involved in the game was enough to substantially change their behaviour.

'It's as if babies turn off women's a willingness to take a risk – but interestingly the same doesn't apply to men.'

The study was published in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior.