You gotta love when pop culture inspires scientific research. Motivated by one of my favorite TV shows, How I Met Your Mother, the authors of a recent paper published in Psychological Science1 investigated Barney Stinson’s claim that people appear more attractive when surrounded by others in a group relative to when they are viewed by themselves. He calls this the “Cheerleader Effect,” inspired by the stereotype that cheerleader groups seem very attractive because of how they appear in groups/teams, even though individual cheerleaders are not more attractive than average.
The researchers tested this idea by showing participants photos of other people (targets) who were either alone or next to others, and participants rated the attractiveness of the person/people in the photos with a sliding (low to high) scale. In 5 experiments, participants consistently rated both male and female faces as more attractive in the group condition relative to the alone condition, even though the faces were exactly the same in both conditions. (Admit it—doesn’t she look hotter in the bottom picture?)
So there is evidence that the “Cheerleader Effect” (also referred to in some contexts as The Bridesmaid Paradox or Sorority Girl Syndrome) exists. But why? The authors offer an explanation stemming from previous research in cognitive science. Basically, humans tend to visualize groups of things as “ensembles” rather than as individual components. Think about when you look at a bowl of fruit. You don’t see 4 bananas, 2 green apples, 8 red grapes, etc., do you? No—you just see a bowl of fruit! That’s how human perception works. When looking at human faces, the viewer’s mind computes an “average” attractiveness level for all the faces in the group, rather than taking the time to calculate each individual face’s attractiveness. As previous research has shown,2 average composites of faces are more attractive than individual faces, which explains why people think others are hotter in the context of a group rather than alone.
So, when you meet people in groups, beware of how your mind plays tricks on you. You might (erroneously) think someone is more attractive simply because he/she is standing next to other people. Take a closer look at that individual alone before evaluating hotness.
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1Walker, D. & Vul, E. (2014). Hierarchical encoding makes individuals in a group seem more attractive. Psychological Science, 25(1), 230-235.
2Langlois, J. H., & Roggman, L. A. (1990). Attractive faces are only average. Psychological Science, 1, 115–121.
Dr. Dylan Selterman – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Selterman’s research focuses on secure vs. insecure personality in relationships. He studies how people dream about their romantic partners and how nighttime dreams are associated with daytime behavior. In addition, Dylan studies issues related to morality and ethics in relationships, including infidelity, betrayal, and jealousy.