Are you more likely to put yourself at risk to help a woman than help a man?

Researchers have conducted experiments to test whether there is a gender bias in costly altruism.

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Costly altruism – helping others at the cost of yourself – is perhaps a noble cause, but in the fight for gender equality, does a gender bias towards women affect who we choose to save or not?

A study conducted by Cambridge University’s Medical Research Council’s Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in collaboration with Columbia University suggests that most people think women’s welfare should be preserved over men’s.

Appearing in the Social Psychological and Personality Science journal, the study details three psychology experiments conducted by the team.

The first is a variation of the classic psychology test “Lifeboat Experiment” in which test subjects were asked who they would choose, if they could only save three out of five passengers in a lifeboat. In the variation, volunteers were asked how willing they would be to push one person in front of an oncoming trolley if it meant saving a group of people further down. Some were told the gender of the person they could push was female; others were told it was male and some that the individual was gender-neutral.

The results showed that both female and male volunteers were more likely to push the male or gender-neutral passerby than they were the female passerby.

For the second experiment, a new group of subjects was brought in and provided with £20 each. They were asked to interact with a separate group of volunteers not partaking in the study and informed that how much money they retained at the end of the experiment would be multiplied by ten. If they chose to keep the money, the individuals they interacted with would receive electric shocks. If they gave up the money, those individuals would be spared.

Once again, the results showed that women were less likely to be subjected to the harmful act  electric shocks even at the costly altruism of losing money. Women in particular were less willing to shock other women.

For the final experiment, the researchers wanted to find out the rationale behind the bias towards protecting women and so presented their volunteers with a survey that included questions such as: “On a sinking ship, who should you save first? Men, women, or no order, “According to social norms, how morally acceptable is it to harm (men/women) for money?, and “According to social norms, how well do (men/women) tolerate pain?

Answers to the questions showed that generally, societal norms dictated a behavior of better protection for women but greater damage to men. The survey also found that most people perceived women to be less able to tolerate pain and found most people believed it unacceptable to hurt women for personal gain.

Furthermore, the researchers noticed, these perspectives were not linked to emotion, as the subjects thought hurt, regardless of gender, was repulsive.

Stereotyping others is not always the cause of costly altruism, however. For example, the book Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us by social psychologist and Berkley University provost Claude Steele examines how stereotypes we ourselves fit into often cause us to behave in ways that are not beneficial to us, sometimes subconsciously.

One particular example from the book is about a group of girls who  – before taking a maths test  – were reinforced with the idea that, as girls, they are worse at maths than boys. They performed poorly when compared to girls who were not told the stereotype.

Application of these results in the real world could profoundly affect not only how we judge each other but also our approach to education, among other things. If women were less likely to allow other women to undergo electric shocks, would a female judge have delivered a less lenient sentence in the Stanford rape case? Is this how we rebalance altruism in a society where it has been skewed by male dominance? 

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