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The Cheerleader Effect: How You Can Actually Seem More Attractive With a Little Help From Your Friends

Imagine you’re sitting in a restaurant, walking through the mall, or even scrolling through social media, and you notice a really good looking group of guys or girls. Maybe you admire them, maybe you’re attracted to them, maybe you’re envious of them, or maybe you even resent them. Regardless of exactly how you react to their attractiveness, you may want to reassess their looks. Research suggests that people are perceived as more attractive when they’re seen in a group than they are when they’re seen individually (Walker and Vul, 2104). So, that glorified group of guys or gals I asked you to imagine before? They might not be just as attractive as they appear. 


If you’ve ever seen the show “How I Met Your Mother,” you might be familiar with this phenomena that is commonly referred to as “the Cheerleader Effect.” In season four, episode seven, main character Barney Stinson coined the term. He explains the phenomenon when he encounters a group of seemingly attractive women at a bar. He explains, quite discourteously, that, just like cheerleaders that look stunningly gorgeous as a squad, but like the average girl next door individually, “They seem hot, but only as a group. Take each individually? Sled dogs.” This phenomenon has also been referred to as the Bridesmaid Paradox, Sorority Girl Syndrome, or even the Spice Girls Conspiracy (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qDzkMXpDZfc). Regardless of how superficial and shallow some of these phrases are, there is, in fact, psychological research backing the “How I Met Your Mother” hypothesis.

In 2014, eight years after Barney Stinson first uttered the term “cheerleader effect,” Drew Walker and Edward Vul published research supporting the phenomenon and explaining some mechanisms that are potentially responsible for it. If I asked you to guess why the cheerleader effect exists, you might speculate something social in nature, like, ‘being surrounded by others makes an individual seem more likable, charming, or socially desirable.’ Potentially to your surprise, though, Walker and Vul suggest a perceptually grounded explanation; persons seem more attractive in a group than alone because of the hierarchical manner of human visual encoding.


Now, if you’re not an avid consumer of cognitive psychological reading and information, that may just be a whole lot of mumbo-jumbo. But have no fear, in order to better understand visual encoding and the role it plays in the Cheerleader Effect, we’ll take things a few steps back. You may be familiar with the Ebbinghaus Illusion in which a medium sized dot looks larger when surrounded by a set of smaller dots and looks smaller when surrounded by a larger set of dots (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ebbinghaus_illusion). Although the center dot doesn’t change in size, it is perceived differently based on the rest of the array. This visual illusion demonstrates that the way humans perceive individual objects is partially dependent upon their surroundings or context — this is known in cognitive psychology as top down processing.


When we encounter a collection of stimuli, our visual system automatically processes things in this top down manner. If a process is automatic, that means that it is done quickly, easily, and without intentional effort. When we automatically process a set of stimuli, our visual system also automatically produces general information about the things we’re looking at. Information like the average size, average location, and even average facial expression of all of the parts we’re seeing is subconsciously and automatically calculated by our visual system (Airely, 2001; Parks, Lund, Angelucci, Solomon & Morgan, 2011; Haberman & Whitney, 2009). So, for example, when Barney Stinson looked at the group of women in the bar, his visual system automatically computed their average attractiveness without him even realizing it. Next, that impression of the whole biases us to view any one part of the group as more similar to that automatically determined average. For example, when individuals see a collection of dots, they remember any one of the dots as being larger or smaller based on the average size of the collection of dots. A larger dot will be interpreted as smaller if the average size of the rest of the dots is small, and a smaller dot will be interpreted as larger if the average size of the rest of the dots is large (Brady & Alvarez, 2011). This phenomenon is referred to as hierarchical encoding. We refer to the average, or overarching characteristics of items in a group rather than their individual features. So, back to Barney, when he looked at any one woman in the group, he interpreted her attractiveness as similar to the average attractiveness of all the women. But why does that make her seem more attractive? Whether you believe it or not, humans actually tend to find average faces more attractive than individual faces. By average faces I refer to composite faces created by combining or averaging images of multiple faces, not the average between attractive and unattractive. Research done by Langlois and Roggman in 1990 showed that compos


ite faces are rated as more attractive than each of the individual faces used to compose them. So, ultimately, when Barney looked at any one woman in the group, he likely found her more attractive because his visual system made him perceive her as more average looking.

So how exactly did Walker and Vul investigate the cheerleader effect and provide evidence for this visual encoding hypothesis? They ran a series of experiments where participants rated the attractiveness of faces. Participants saw, and rated, 100 faces. They rated each face twice though, once in a group photo with two other individuals of the same gender, and once in an isolated portrait that was created by cropping the same group photo. Whether the participants saw the group photo or individual portrait first was random. Walker and Vul found that both male and female faces were rated as significantly more attractive in the group photo than in the isolated portrait.

Now, you might have realized that under those particular circumstances, participants still 


may have preferred faces in the group condition because the group photos communicated that those people were more pleasant, friendly, personable, etc.. To confront this possibility, Walker and Vul conducted another study. This time around, the group photos were created by placing simple individual headshots into grids so that there was no social context. Again, participants rated each face in the group setting and in isolation, and, again, participants rated faces as significantly more attractive in the group setting.

Although this cognitive phenomenon may seem superficial with few everyday applications, there are actually a few things we can learn from Mr. Stinson’s shallow theory. If you’re in the dating scene, it might not hurt to have a wingman/wingwoman, or two. If you’re headed out on a friday night, bring along a couple of friends, or if you’re trying to choose a profile picture for your online dating account it might be helpful to choose a photo of you and some friends… no matter how good you look in the selfie you took last week. This same rule could also apply to almost any social media platform. You may even want to consider Stinson’s advice in choosing a profile photo for a more business oriented app or website like linkedin. Although it may seem a little peculiar or unprofessional to intentionally select a more appealing photo of yourself to show to potential employers or coworkers, research (on another cognitive bias, the halo effect) shows that positive attributes like intelligence and competence are actually projected onto more attractive people (http://web.colby.edu/cogblog/2017/04/14/the-halo-effect-swiping-right-for-the-wrong-reasons/#more-2601).

Ultimately, the cheerleader effect and its potential real world applications have significant implications about the society we live in. The simple existence of the cheerleader effect, let alone the means by which it could be used to individuals’ advantage in real life, show the strong value and importance placed on attractiveness in our society. Whether we like it or not, sometimes it pays off to flaunt attractiveness. Why is that? Many people claim that individuals have become vain or that capitalism and materialism have corrupted us all. However, looking to cognitive and social psychology often offers contrasting explanations rooted in scientific evidence. Thus, the cheerleader effect and its potential real world applications go deeper than the surface by forcing us to ask bigger questions about our society as a whole and the morals and values we adhere to. Who would’ve thought that Barney Stinson and How I Met Your Mother would offer such comprehensive and momentous food for thought?

If you want to learn more about the cheerleader effect, check out these other articles!







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