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Psychologist Says Boys, Girls View Risk Differently

Barbara Morrongiello tells about the boy who climbed onto a garage roof to retrieve a ball.

“His mother said, ‘Don’t you realize you can fall?”’ Morrongiello said. “The boy said, ‘Well, but I might not.”’

To the Canadian psychologist, this illustrates how boys think - which, according to Morrongiello, is different from how girls think.

Boys are more likely to see if the benefit is worth the risk, but tend to underestimate the risks, said Morrongiello, a professor at the University of Guelph in Ontario. Girls tend to base their decisions on whether they could be hurt at all, she said.

This difference may help explain why boys are 2-4 times more likely than girls to get hurt.

Morrongiello and her colleagues looked at risk assessments among 290 6- to 10-year-old boys and girls in Ontario schools. The students were shown drawings of children biking or on playground equipment and then asked about the likelihood and severity of injuries.

Eighty percent of the time, she could tell the child’s gender by their attitude toward injury.

Boys were less likely to say they would get hurt, and less likely to think an injury would be severe. “And boys tended to explain their injuries as more due to bad luck than the girls.”

Boys won’t consider avoiding a risky situation unless they think there is a strong potential for injury, while girls will consider avoiding it if there is any potential. In these psychological calculations, an activity a boy considers fun may be worth a little risk of getting hurt, she said.

The findings come as no surprise to researcher Licette Peterson, a psychology professor at the University of Missouri, Columbia.

In Peterson’s study, children rode exercise bikes while watching a video of a bike ride, shot from an over-the-handlebars, biker’s-eye perspective. She tested the reaction times of the children to hazards ranging from running over a garden hose to running head-on into a car.

“Girls brake sooner,” Peterson said. “They tell us they are more fearful and they anticipate more pain if they are injured.”

Why girls are more fearful is not known. It could be a genetic tendency, the result of social conditioning, or a combination of the two.

The findings might help explain why many girls drop out of sports. It might well be that boys in general are more adventuresome.

But the researchers noted, the gender differences are not absolute. Some girls have a greater tolerance of risk than some boys.

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