THE IMPACT OF GENDER STEREOTYPES ON BEHAVIOUR: Experimental evidence from a ”beauty contest” game

Gender stereotypes can influence men and women''s behaviour to be more competitive or empathic. That is the central finding of experimental research by Maria Cubel and Santiago Sanchez-Pages, published in the May 2017 issue of the Economic Journal.

In their experiment, participants were asked to choose a number from 0 to 100: specifically, they were asked to guess what two-thirds of the average response would be – a form of the ''beauty contest'' game described by John Maynard Keynes in which players compete to choose not the prettiest but the most popular one. In the new study, participants were sometimes given money if they won; other times, they were made aware of gender (using pink or blue response sheets and separating men and women).

The researchers find that women are more likely to use smarter strategies when they have the opportunity to win money – while men are already doing their best and do not react. This suggests that men are more competitive for the sake of competition, while women need to be encouraged.

The authors also find that when people are made more aware of their gender, women start doing even better than men. This suggests that women feel confident in the stereotype that they are better at imagining what other people think, which can become a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts.


Conventional wisdom is very keen at producing gender stereotypes. For example, it is often said that women''s thinking is twisted and that they are less predictable than men. Another common tenet is that women are more empathic and better than men at imagining what others think and feel.

Leaving aside their truthfulness, stereotypes can have a large impact on actual behaviour. People may resort to them when a situation is too complex or when they have to process too much information. But stereotypes may influence behaviour in a more subtle way. The shadow of a stereotype may induce people to follow it or to fight it even unconsciously.

Take the case of the well-established cliché claiming that women are worse than men at mathematics. Women who believe this, because of reduced confidence or effort, might perform below their real ability when presented with a mathematical task, thus confirming the cliché.

This psychological reaction to a negative stereotype is called stereotype threat. If on the contrary, the stereotype is positive and leads people to improve their performance, it is called stereotype boost.

Using the guessing game, this study looks at the influence of gender stereotypes on strategic situations. In this game, participants have to choose a number between 0 and 100 in order to guess a proportion, typically two thirds, of the average response of all participants.

This game is also known as the beauty contest in honour of John Maynard Keynes. Keynes compared investing in the stock market to the popular newspaper contests in the 1920s and 1930s in which readers had to choose the most attractive face from a hundred of photographs. Those who chose the most popular face, not the prettiest, won a prize. By the same token, Keynes said, you should invest in those stocks others think are best, not necessarily the best ones.

Similarly, if a participant wants to win in the guessing game in this study, he or she must think about how other participants are going to choose their numbers. Because of this, the game is notoriously difficult to win: standard economic theory says that everybody must choose zero but if you play with people who are not perfectly rational, or simply don''t try hard enough, zero will be far from the right answer.

In some sessions of the experiment, the researchers manipulated incentives. In others, they made gender salient in order to activate gender stereotypes. They did this by giving participants instructions in pink or blue response sheets and by moving women and men from one room to another.

Incentive manipulation produced the first result: women reacted more strongly to incentives than men, and displayed more strategic sophistication in those sessions where there was a monetary prize at stake than when there wasn''t.

Men, however, did not react to money. They were doing their best already when there was no prize. This is in line with the idea that men are more competitive because they enjoy competing per se. Women, perhaps more naturally, needed an extra incentive to make additional strategic effort.

The second result was that there were no gender differences in strategic reasoning in the sessions with prizes and no gender priming. Men were slightly better than women, but not significantly. The conclusion could be that no gender differences in strategic sophistication exist under standard conditions.

But things changed dramatically when gender was salient: women''s strategic sophistication increased to the point of outperforming men. This suggests that women found confidence in the stereotype claiming that women are better than men at imagining what others think, which in turn boosted their strategic reasoning and made them confirm the stereotype.

''Gender Differences and Stereotypes in Strategic Reasoning'' by Maria Cubel and Santiago Sanchez-Pages is published in the May 2017 issue of the Economic Journal. Maria Cubel is at the University of Barcelona. Santiago Sanchez-Pages is at King''s College London and the University of Barcelona.