Miss France, a maths ambassador for girls?

Within a week of each other, there was (again) a lot of talk about mathematics in France. First there was the release of the results of the famous PISA survey, which raised concerns about the level of French students in this subject. Then, the Miss France election put the spotlight on the university sector, with this year's winner being a student of applied mathematics.

Angela Sutan, Burgundy School of Business ; Noémie Bobin, University of Montpellier and Sylvain Max, Burgundy School of Business

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Could a Miss France studying mathematics be a role model for young girls, inviting them to invest in a field of study that they are currently deserting en masse?

This is a tempting hypothesis, insofar as "role models" can inspire vocations, and encounters between female professionals and high-school students can remove obstacles to certain educational choices. However, we need to take into account a well-known phenomenon in behavioral economics, the "dilution effect".

Students and role models

Eve Gilles is not the first Miss France mathematician. In 1962, Muguette Fabris won the title despite having a degree in mathematics. And many candidates for the Miss France title have, or have had, lengthy studies, some of them scientific. Yet, neither in 1962 nor since, has their presence on the catwalk had a "role model" effect, encouraging young girls to follow in their footsteps and study science.

A "role model" is someone who has been particularly successful in a field where the group to which they belong is deemed less successful. Numerous studies show that a role model, i.e. a member who goes against the stereotypes of his or her social group, can represent an inspirational figure. Others may want to reproduce or imitate his or her qualities or achievements.

This is where the so-calleddilution effect comes in: it has been proven in behavioral science that individuals tend to instinctively believe that something that performs a single function is better than something else that performs the same function, plus additional functions (for example, a product that cleans and is environmentally friendly).

In other words, the accumulation of objectives is likely to reduce or dilute the perceived effectiveness of achieving each objective, reducing the likelihood that what the object in question was designed for in the first place will be perceived as an effective use.

This is true of objects, but the same principle applies to people: a candidate taking part in Miss France, whose main selection attribute is beauty, will be considered less beautiful if, in addition to being beautiful, she is also... intelligent. In fact, the new Miss was met with a wave of criticism on social networks.

Cognitive biases to be taken into account

In marketing theory, people who vote to elect Miss France make choices that correspond to preferences, based on available information. The fact that a candidate is selected as a finalist validates her "beauty" attribute. This mainly solves a problem of information asymmetry: the belief attribute (I believe a girl could be beautiful, but I'm not sure what the prevailing standard of beauty is, or what others think) becomes a search attribute, reducing uncertainty (I'm sure this candidate is beautiful by social standards, and it's now a matter of choosing the most beautiful).

"For me, there's also a problem in the apprehension of mats", Eve Gilles (December 2023, TF1).

Consequently, it's intuitively convincing to inform voters of the existence of another attribute of the candidate in question, especially if this attribute doesn't objectively affect the "beauty" dimension: the fact that she's educated, for example, isn't supposed to take away from her beauty capital. It should even benefit her. In practice, however, things are more complicated, as individuals mistakenly perceive that the beauty dimension may have deteriorated as a result of their studies... due to the orthogonality and therefore the dissonance of these two attributes.

There are two reasons for this divergence: firstly, the goal dilution model suggests that, when several goals are pursued with a single means, individuals perceive them as being less effectively achieved than when goals are pursued individually.

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Secondly, the zero-sum game heuristic suggests that individuals believe that an increase in quality on one dimension of the product is automatically compensated by a decrease in quality on other dimensions: if in addition to being beautiful, one is also intelligent, it is at the expense of less beauty, as if the sum between intelligence and beauty had to remain constant and therefore, to be intelligent, one had to give up a little beauty.

The zero-sum bias corresponds to the tendency to intuitively judge a situation as zero-sum: resources invested in one dimension would automatically be offset by an equivalent loss of resources invested in other dimensions, even if the objective situation is in fact non-zero-sum.

Talking sports instead of maths?

So it seems ineffective to keep talking about the studies that the Misses may have done. This will not have the desired effect in the long term and, in the short term, will reinforce the perception of a less pretty Miss.

However, there's one attribute that most Miss France contestants have that we don't talk about enough: a consonant attribute that goes hand in hand with beauty. It's sports.

Counter-intuitively, talking about sports could encourage more girls... to do maths! Why would this be? It's been established that sportsmen and women benefit from a "sports bonus" in the form of higher salaries and benefits, greater employability and shorter periods of unemployment.

Athletes are more likely to be paid according to their performance, which reduces the wage gap between men and women. The psychological traits of athletes may also correspond to those that determine entrepreneurial intention and success.

All this has important implications for higher education policy. Sport participation has a causal influence on success in competitions (such as Miss France, but also in life in general) and this argues for its reinforcement in the education of all young people. Increasing competitiveness through sporting participation seems a possible way of closing the competitiveness gap between men and women.

Angela Sutan, Professor of Behavioral Economics, Burgundy School of Business Noémie Bobin, PhD student in Behavioral and Experimental Economics, University of Montpellier and Sylvain Max, Social Psychologist, Associate Professor, Burgundy School of Business

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.