Differences in decision making between females and males

It is currently thought that psychiatric disabilities and disorders (e.g., psychosis, depression, autism) are related to differences in how we make decisions. A team at the University of Minnesota investigated how sex might influence decision making in a way that might reveal why some disorders, such as autism, are more commonly diagnosed in boys and men versus girls and women. Their findings were published in the journal Current Biology.

Researchers had mice play a simple video game. The mice had a few hours a day with a touchscreen showing two images. Touching one of the images would give a reward – a small drop of vanilla milkshake – 8 out of 10 tries, and the other would only give the reward 2 out of 10 tries, randomized. After every touch, the mice either received or didn’t receive a milkshake drop and would get to try the game again.

The study found:

  • the female mice, compared to the male mice, consistently learned that one image rewarded them faster than the other, on average, and individually used the same efficient strategy to learn the best option;
  • male mice were inconsistent in not only making decisions differently from other males, but also in making decisions differently from his own decisions in the same situation in the past.

“Both sexes eventually were able to learn the image pairs, but they took a very different road to get there,” said lead author Nicola Grissom, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology in the College of Liberal Arts. “This suggests that sex might be one of the things affecting our strategies for interacting with the world. However, we still do not know how separate sex variables, like sex chromosomes or hormones, might affect cognition separately and in combination to allow different individuals to create unique approaches.”

The study was supported by the National Institutes of Mental Health and the University of Minnesota Foundation. It was conducted in collaboration with other University of Minnesota faculty in the Medical School’s Neuroscience Department including Associate Professor Ben Hayden and Professor David Redish.

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