Lehman Sisters? Probably

New research suggests women are just as dangerous as men.

Finally, a proper study on the matter: knowing you're a girl won't tell us much about your gambling habits. The study in question comes from a paper released by Bundesbank, and finds gender to be a poor predictor of risky investment. I've always thought this, so to avoid repeating myself, here's something I wrote last year on the subject:

There's a persistent opinion knocking around that blames the financial crisis on one small molecule: testosterone. It is testosterone, apparently, that makes traders go feral as stocks rise, taking bigger and bigger risks until Lehman Brothers happens, or someone falls out of a window.

Women, then, goes the argument, are safer traders - so let's fill trading floors with the ladies. Naturally cautious, milder creatures, they make better investors. If women ruled the world, continues the logic, getting jovial now, lighting its pipe - there would be no stock-market crashes, and probably no wars either.

The argument is, on the face of it, pro-women. After all, it's saying women are good at something; they're good at not being overconfident. But is it feminist? Not really. Broad behavioural generalisations based in biology rarely do women much good. Along with "risk aversion" goes "less competitive" and "less confident". Banking may need these traits but they aren't attractive to employers, and it's damaging to saddle an entire gender with them.

In that article I referred to a study from Stanford, which looked at how women's behaviour towards risk changes as a result of gender stereotyping.

When the experimenters brought up gender stereotypes before the trial, women became overwhelmingly more cautious, whereas men took more risks. When such stereotypes were not used, men and women performed almost equally.

Any differences in financial risk-taking owed a great deal, I suggested, to social conditioning.  Now Bundesbank's paper addresses the matter more directly. The reserachers looked at households in Austria, the Netherlands, Italy and Spain, and found that a great predictor of risk-taking behaviour was not in fact gender but age. As subjects got older, their tendencies to make risky choices fell gradually, (the steepest fall was between the late teens and 30s). Gender did not have that much impact - and crucially, varied according to social factors. In Italy, where sexual inequality is seen as higher, gender had more influence on attitude to risk.

Clearly, there is more evidence to be gathered, but it seems to be mounting up.


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The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless choice about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.