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March 01, 2017

Exploring Gender Differences in Reward and Punishment Sensitivity with Disordered Eating

Topics in Eating Disorders generic2

An individual’s level of reward and punishment sensitivity are believed to influence binge eating and compensatory behaviors.

Why is that? Well, a high reward sensitivity means that a person has an increased tendency to seek out and experience pleasure. This is thought to heighten the likelihood of overeating. Similarly, a high punishment sensitivity means that a person is fearful of negative consequences and will tend to go out their way to avoid punishment. Given this tendency, heightened punishment sensitivity is thought to contribute to compensatory behaviors (actions people take to make up for consuming calories because they fear weight gain, such as fasting, vomiting, and laxative/diuretic use). Taken together, it is theorized that the binge-purge cycle may be perpetuated by high reward and punishment sensitivities.

Research has also shown that reward and punishment sensitivities differ by gender. Women report greater reward dependence, intensity of reward signals, and punishment sensitivities; men report higher sensation seeking tendencies.

Given these reported gender differences, the authors of a recent study sought to explore whether specific gender differences exist with reward and punishment sensitivities in the context of disordered eating.

The study evaluated male and female college-aged participants to determine reward and punishment sensitivities as well as the presence of binge eating and compensatory behaviors. The results showed that rates of binge eating and compensatory behaviors were similar in both genders, although women engaged in compensatory behavior more often. Women were more sensitive to punishment and men were more sensitive to reward. In terms of eating behaviors, reward and punishment sensitivities were positively correlated with binge eating in both genders. However, contrary to the hypothesis, compensatory behavior was not associated with punishment sensitivity, but reward sensitivity in women.

So essentially, despite general gender differences in reward and punishment sensitivities, the results of this study do not demonstrate major gender differences in terms of disordered eating, with the exception of a greater number of females trending toward compensatory behaviors. This study and others like it increase our understanding of functions in the brain that relate to the development and continuance of eating disorders. Future research will be needed to better understand the relationship between eating disorders and reward/punishment sensitivities.

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