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Cortisol boosts risky decision-making behavior in men but not in women.

TitleCortisol boosts risky decision-making behavior in men but not in women.
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2017
AuthorsKluen, L. Marieke, Agorastos A., Wiedemann K., & Schwabe L.
Date Published2017 Oct
KeywordsAdult, Choice Behavior, Decision Making, Double-Blind Method, Female, Humans, Hydrocortisone, Male, Risk, Risk-Taking, Saliva, Sex Factors, Stress, Psychological, Yohimbine

Acute stress may escalate risky decision-making in men, while there is no such effect in women. Although first evidence links these gender-specific effects of stress to stress-induced changes in cortisol, whether elevated cortisol is indeed sufficient to boost risk-taking, whether a potential cortisol effect depends on simultaneous noradrenergic activation, and whether cortisol and noradrenergic activation exert distinct effects on risk-taking in men and women is unknown. In this experiment, we therefore set out to elucidate the impact of cortisol and noradrenergic stimulation on risky decision-making in men and women. In a fully-crossed, placebo-controlled, double-blind design, male and female participants received orally either a placebo, hydrocortisone, yohimbine, an alpha-2-adrenoceptor-antagonist leading to increased noradrenergic stimulation, or both drugs before completing the balloon analogue risk task, a validated measure of risk-taking. Overall, participants' choice was risk-sensitive as reflected in reduced responding in high- compared to moderate- and low-risk conditions. Cortisol, however, led to a striking increase in risk-taking in men, whereas it had no effect on risk-taking behavior in women. Yohimbine had no such effect and the gender-specific effect of cortisol was not modulated by yohimbine. Our data show that cortisol boosts risk-taking behavior in men but not in women. This differential effect of cortisol on risk-taking may drive gender differences in risky decision-making under stress.

Alternate JournalPsychoneuroendocrinology
PubMed ID28750292


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