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Why Gender Neurology Matters in Political Decision Making

Posted: 08/04/10 05:49 PM ET

Sex and Stress: Male Vs. Female Political and Domestic Strategies

Neuroscience research confirms that when stressed, men tend toward 'fight or flight' reactions, while women prefer to talk -- and that men take more risks, while women are generally more cautious. However, neither the mechanisms underlying these findings, nor their implications for businesses, politics and families, have been adequately explored.

One month ago, Kathleen Parker's column in the Washington Post called President Obama "The First Female President" and concluded that his "feminine" political style is a liability that's making him less popular. However, Ms. Parker's conclusions are based neither on scientific understanding of male and female negotiation strategies nor on persuasive evidence.

For example, Nancy Pelosi's recent success in getting the health care reform bill passed caused many to label her the most skilled house majority leader in history, believing she outperformed her male predecessors. Her abilities have been honed over a lifetime, but it is possible that the differences between male and female stress responses also contributed to her performance. Scientists are finding that under stress, men's and women's brains respond in almost directly opposite ways, both in decision-making strategies and responses to threats.

The fight or flight response usually described as the normal human reaction to a threat turns out to only be normal for males. Stressed and threatened women instead tend to seek affiliation with others, and now brain scans show why. Specifically, when looking at angry faces, stressed women's brains respond in opposite ways to those of stressed men. It is hard to imagine a scenario in which anyone is exposed to more angry faces than Speaker Pelosi was during the health care debate.

When stressed women look at angry faces, the parts of their brains that respond to faces (the fusiform face area) are highly activated and coordinated with those areas that handle understanding other people's emotions and perspective. Certainly this tendency would have enhanced Ms. Pelosi's already formidable skills.

In contrast, stressed men looking at angry faces have reduced activation and coordination of those brain areas. Similarly, behavioral studies show that when stressed, men tend to withdraw (flight or fight) whereas women seek affiliation (want to talk), especially when confronted with an angry person.

According to Dr. Mara Mather of the University of Southern California, a leading cognitive neuroscience researcher, this is probably caused by a sort of feedback loop. If you are not as attuned to other people's responses when under stress, you may not be as good at dealing with others, and thus tend to withdraw. But if you read angry people especially well, you may feel further empowered to engage with them.

Men and women under stress have different decision-making strategies as well. Stress tends to increase risk taking in men but decrease it in women. In stressed women, the parts of the brain that assess subtle changes in body states are highly activated. So are other parts of the brain that send emotional signals that something bad is about to happen, increasing a sense of foreboding.

The opposite is true in the brains of men who are stressed. Men receive fewer body signals and have a reduced sense of impending danger. It is possible that men, when receiving fewer bodily sensations than normal, take additional risks to increase these signals.

If we apply these findings to the performance of both high profile and ordinary people under stress, we may gain a better understanding of their behavior, such as Nancy Pelosi's superlative performance with an angry nation at her back, and Jack Kennedy's risky confrontations with the USSR during the Cuban missile crisis and the Bay of Pigs disaster. More prosaically, women confronting angry partners tend to want to talk extensively or seek therapy, while men often resist such strategies and occasionally become violent. This pattern is made more comprehensible by our new understanding of the differences between male and female responses to stress.

We should take these differences seriously. Learning to understand and use the strategies of both genders (including risk taking and avoidance, affiliation, withdrawal, and confrontation) can make us better negotiators, whether in politics or in our professional and personal lives. President Obama has been praised for achieving the passage of more important, controversial reform legislation in his first 20 months in office than any president since FDR. His success may be due to his appreciation and mastery of both male and female negotiating styles.

Or, to our own detriment, we can continue to ignore or condemn the natural strengths and tendencies of the opposite sex.

Perhaps it is time to insist that all sensitive negotiations, whether in The White House, Congress, Middle Eastern diplomacy, business, or in the family, make deliberate, appropriate use of both male and female strategies to arrive at the best outcomes. Maybe with true collaboration between the sexes, we will get not only financial reform, and health care for all but peace in homes and between nations.