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Sex Differences in Children’s Physical Risk-

taking Behaviors:
Natural Observations at the San Antonio
Zoological Gardens
Harvey J. Ginsburg, Kimberly Rogerson, Elizabeth Voght,
Jennifer Walters and Roger D. Bartels
Texas State University at San Marcos

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), Χ2 (1, N = 387) = 18.99, p < .001,
one-tailed) and the tube chutes for boys (34/179) and girls (14/159), Χ2
(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.

Author info: Correspondence should be sent to: Dr. Harvey Ginsburg, Psychology
Dept., Room 208, Texas State U. at San Marcos, San Marcos, TX 78666.
hg01@txstate.edu.
North American Journal of Psychology, 2007, Vol. 9, No. 3, 407-414.
 NAJP
408 NORTH AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PSYCHOLOGY

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.
The meta-analyses of gender differences in risk-taking showed that
the vast majority of published studies involved survey data of
hypothetical choices or self-reports. Results derived from directly
observing and measuring behaviors constituted the fewest analyses, just
3.4%. To address the need for establishing more data collected from
direct observations and measures of physical risk-taking activities, we
observed children’s physical behaviors at two sites at the San Antonio
Zoological Gardens. The hypotheses were that boys would engage in
significantly more physical risk behaviors crossing a rope and wood
suspension bridge without using handrails and, entering the exit of tube
slides despite pictorial and written warning signs stationed above the
chutes.
Ginsburg, Rogerson, Voght, Walters, & Bartels RISK-TAKING 409

METHOD
Participants
Children whose ages were estimated to be between two and twelve
years, and who were accompanied by adults to the San Antonio
Zoological Gardens were unobtrusively observed at: entry turnstiles (n=
1,888); suspension bridge exhibit (n = 387); and, at tube chutes exhibit (n
= 338). Ethnicity estimates for a sub-sample (n = 375) at the entry
turnstiles revealed these proportions: 59% White, non-Hispanic, 33%
Hispanic, 3% African-American, 2% Asian, 3% Other.

Sites and Materials


Data were collected during 14 observation days at the zoo entry
turnstiles and at the two exhibits. The rope and wood suspension bridge,
approximately 140 m long, had rope handrails for children to hold as
they crossed the suspension bridge. The tube chutes, approximately 70 m
long, had a graphic picture with an accompanying warning showing
children not to enter the end of the tube chutes.
Observers used pen and notepads to record frequencies of boys and
girls entering turnstiles, as well as estimates of age and ethnicity at the
zoo turnstiles. Pen and notepads were also used to record frequencies of
all boys and girls entering the two exhibits, for recording caregivers’
reported ages for a sub-sample of children crossing the suspension bridge
and, frequencies of risk-taking behaviors at the suspension bridge and
tube chutes.

Procedure
Two independent observers unobtrusively recorded children
accompanied by caregivers at entry turnstiles and at the two exhibits. At
the suspension bridge, frequency counts were obtained for boys and girls
who either touched the handrails or traversed the bridge without touching
the handrails. At the tube chutes, frequency counts were obtained for
boys and girls who either moved away from the slide upon completion or
disregarded the warning sign and entered the exits of the chutes.
For purposes of clear statistical analyses, children’s risk-taking was
recorded once and subsequent multiple risks taken by the same child
were not considered in the data set. As children left the suspension bridge
with adult caregivers, a sub-sample of caregivers were asked to state the
child’s age in years and months.

RESULTS
Inter-rater reliability for identifying the children’s gender was .98.
Frequencies of boys (949) and girls (939) entering the San Antonio
410 NORTH AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PSYCHOLOGY

Zoological Gardens entry turnstiles were equivalent. At both exhibits,


the percentage of boys (52%) slightly outnumbered girls (48%).
There were significant differences in frequencies for not using the
handrails on the suspension bridge for boys (132/203) and girls (79/184),
Χ2 (1, n = 387) = 18.99, p < .001, one-tailed). At the tube chutes boys
(34/179) and girls (14/159) showed significantly disproportionate
frequencies entering the exits; Χ2 (1, n = 338) = 7.176, p < .01, one-
tailed). Relative to the absolute frequencies of males and females
entering these exhibits, males engaged in riskier behaviors.
At the suspension bridge exit, adult escorts were requested to provide
children’s ages in months and years. Adult age reports of 66 girls (M =
6.34, SD = 1.30) were slightly older than for age reports of 78 boys (M =
5.34, SD = 1.41).

TABLE 1 Proportion of Boys’ & Girls’ Physical Risk-taking Behaviors


Relative to Frequencies of Boys & Girls Entering Both
Exhibits
Suspension Bridge Tube Chutes
Boys .650 .190
Girls .429 .088

Inter-rater agreement for the measured behaviors was .98 for the
suspension bridge and was .97 for the tube chutes. Table 1 shows the
proportions of boys’ and girls’ risk behaviors when crossing the
suspension bridge and entering bottoms of tube chutes. Figure 1 shows
boys entering a tube chute. A girl is shown exhorting two boys taking
turns entering a tube chute. She pointed toward the warning sign at a
distance but they repeatedly ignored her. The girl finally got their
attention by moving closer, pointing to the warning sign and
admonishing the boys to stop entering the chute.

DISCUSSION
Boys took more physical risks than girls at both sites. The tube chute
appeared to have greater potential for harm, since being kicked in the
head by a child sliding down the chute might conceivably produce more
serious consequences than falling down while crossing the suspension
bridge without holding the handrails. Risk-taking at the suspension
bridge involved failing to take advantage of the presence of handrails that
could reduce risk potential. Risk-taking at the tube chutes, entering the
exits, required children’s active exploration of the potential hazard. These
latter data were similar to past findings that boys were more likely to
approach and touch environmental hazards than girls (Morrongielo &
Dawber, 1998).
Ginsburg, Rogerson, Voght, Walters, & Bartels RISK-TAKING 411

Ginsburg and Miller (1982) examined physical risk at a San Antonio


Zoological Gardens burro exhibit having a caution sign with text and
picture warning not to feed the animal because it bites. The magnitude of
the sex differences then was similar to the difference observed at the tube
slides over two decades later. Boys’ increased propensities for such
physical risk behaviors when warning signs were present appear
consistent over time. It should be noted that the overwhelming majority
of boys (81%) and girls (91%) entering the tube chutes did not risk
potential harm by entering the bottom of the chutes. A majority of both
sexes obeyed the caution sign at the tube chutes. However, the similarity
of ratios for boys and girls who were observed taking physical risks and
failing to heed the warning signs were quite consistent over a time span
of more than 20 years. These collective data showed that, at least for
children’s physical risk-taking activities, Byrnes, Miller and Schafer’s
(1999) general conclusion, that the magnitude of sex differences in risk-
taking has diminished, is not wholly warranted.
It is unclear whether children entering the tube chutes were unaware
of the warning signs and potential for injuries. Some might have been
aware of the possible dangers and were purposefully ignoring the
warning signs. Our observational approach precluded answering this
question. However, Furby and Beyth-Marom (1992) argued that
behaviors can be defined as risky even when the person is unaware of
possible injurious consequences.
The underlying causes of sex differences in risk-taking behaviors
remain unanswered and complex, having genetic and environmental
concomitants. Morrongiello and Dawber (1999) reported that parents
differentially taught two- to four-year-old boys and girls how to slide
down a pole. Boys had fewer parental explanations and more
exhortations for attempting the pole slide task without physical
assistance. Parents spontaneously provided girls with more physical
assistance. These findings also generalized to observations during free
play. Recently, Hagan and Kuebi (2007) had parents interact with their
preschoolers as the children traversed an obstacle course including
climbing across an elevated ladder catwalk and walking across an
elevated foot-wide metal beam. They found that fathers of daughters
monitored their daughters more closely than fathers of sons, while
mothers equally monitored their sons and daughters. These results
illustrate the complex interactions between genetic and environmental
influences. By six years, children have developed different beliefs about
risky play behaviors resulting in injuries (Morrongiello, Midgett &
Stanton, 2000). They noted that children expected girls to have more
injuries when they engaged in the same behaviors as boys. These present
findings, that boys engaged in more physical risk activities even when
412 NORTH AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PSYCHOLOGY

warning signs were present, may help account for the actual higher
proportions of boys’ physical injuries (Rivara, Bergman, Logerfo, &
Weiss, 1982). Any generalizations to childhood injuries should be
approached with caution, since none of the children we observed
sustained any measurable injuries.
These findings of sex differences in physical risk behaviors at the
tube chutes where warning signs were present were consistent with
Byrnes, Miller and Schafer (1999) conclusions that males took more
risks when it was obviously not a good idea. The suspension bridge data
also supported their conclusion that females appeared less likely to take
risks when the context appeared reasonably safe. At least for risks
involving physical activities, such general conclusions were supported.
In conclusion, the results from direct observations of physical
activities in everyday situations showed significant sex differences in
children’s physical risk-taking. We concur with Byrnes, Miller and
Schaffer’s (1999) suggestion that large magnitudes of sex differences
might be more likely when people have the option to perform risky
behaviors than when they merely think about options. Processes
requiring translating cognitions to physical activities may produce
proportionally larger sex differences in risk-taking than reflective
cognitive processes obtained from retrospective self-reports or
hypothetical choice studies. However, their general conclusion that the
magnitude of sex differences in risk-taking has decreased through the
years was not supported. The present findings, that boys took more
physical risks despite the presence of warning signs, were comparable to
data collected 20 years earlier at the San Antonio Zoological Gardens.
Self-reported data showing a decline over time in the magnitude of sex
differences for risk-taking might be more subject to changing socio-
cultural attitudes and gender roles, while the magnitude of sex
differences of children’s risk-taking for physical activities may be more
consistent and robust than retrospective self-reports of risk-taking.

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414 NORTH AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PSYCHOLOGY

FIGURE 1 Photographs of Boys’ Risk-taking at the Tube Slide and a


Girl Pointing to Warning Sign

Author Note: Authors express thanks to Dr. Reiko Graham and Dr. Natalie
Ceballos for reading and suggesting improvements to the manuscript.