Sex Differences in Children's Physical Risk-Taking Behaviors: Natural Observations at the San Antonio Zoological Gardens

By Ginsburg, Harvey J.; Rogerson, Kimberly et al. | North American Journal of Psychology, June 2007 | Go to article overview

Sex Differences in Children's Physical Risk-Taking Behaviors: Natural Observations at the San Antonio Zoological Gardens


Ginsburg, Harvey J., Rogerson, Kimberly, Voght, Elizabeth, Walters, Jennifer, Bartels, Roger D., North American Journal of Psychology


Children's physical risk behaviors were observed at San Antonio Zoological Gardens. Measured risk activities were crossing a suspension bridge without holding the safety handrails and entering exits of tube chutes that had posted pictorial and print warning signs. Proportional to the overall frequencies of boys and girls entering these exhibits, significant differences were observed at both the suspension bridge for boys (132/203) and girls (79/184), [X.sup.2] (1, N = 387) = 18.99, p < .001, one-tailed) and the tube chutes for boys (34/179) and girls (14/159), [X.sup.2] (1, N = 338) = 7.176, p < .01, one-tailed). Boys engaged in more physical risk behaviors than girls. These findings were consistent with natural observations reported at similar zoo exhibits two decades earlier suggesting that, unlike self-reported risk-taking data, the magnitude of sex differences in children's physical risk-taking may not have diminished over time.

Byrnes, Miller and Schafer (1999) performed a meta-analysis of 150 research publications and dissertations that produced a total of 322 analyses for gender differences in risk-taking published between 1967 and 1997. They compared the magnitude of differences for 83 analyses from studies conducted between 1964 and 1980 with 235 analyses from studies conducted between 1981 and 1997. Spanning 34 years, the two 17-year periods showed significantly different means, leading these authors to conclude that sex differences in risk-taking have diminished over time. However, their time analysis combined data from all studies of hypothetical choices, self-reported risk activities and, direct observations of everyday behaviors. They did not delineate contexts, methods and measurements of authors reporting smaller magnitudes of sex differences from contexts producing significant and consistently large magnitudes of sex differences, regardless of time and cohort groups.

Risk measures involving physical activities showed the greatest magnitude of sex differences and were significantly greater than self-reported measures. However, their meta-analysis illuminated the fact that only 11 of the 322 analyses were derived by directly measuring risk behaviors involving physical activities. Natural observations of sex differences in children's physical activities risk-taking have been previously reported by the first author, at river banks, a petting zoo and at a burro exhibit with a danger sign posted to inhibit children from feeding the animal that might bite fingers (Ginsburg & Miller, 1982). Those reported sex differences in children's physical risk activities at a zoo were consistent with findings of Morrongielo and Dawber (1998) who reported that boy toddlers were more likely to approach and touch risk hazards than girls. Boys were less compliant around the risk hazards and mothers used more effortful redirection strategies.

Several risk models (Atkinson, 1983; Byrnes, 1998; Irwin & Millstein, 1991; Wigfield & Eccles, 1992) have predicted that gender differences could vary according to context. Differing expectations and roles provided by contexts might promote more or less risk taking on the part of males and females. Although the meta-analysis strongly indicated that males were typically more likely to take risks than females, Byrnes, Miller and Schafer qualified this general conclusion, noting that context and age differences produced considerable variation for the magnitude of sex differences reported across studies. They concluded that many factors can contribute to the magnitude of sex differences in risk-taking, including variations in: biological maturation; cognitive strategies; self-regulation; self- perceptions; social environment and risk potential; personal values; and, different peer group characteristics. For example, Miller and Byrnes (1997) reported that sex differences in self-regulatory processes were related to sex differences in risk-taking in third- to seventh-grade children. …

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