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Squad Goals! Why Attractiveness is a Team Sport


From time to time, science puts its nerdy inquiries on hold and answers pressing questions. One such universal concern is attractiveness. Recent research in psychology is looking at how being part of a group affects how others see you. Can walking around in a group make you more attractive? Can you figure out how attractive a group is by averaging the attractiveness scores of each member? Thankfully, cognitive psychology is here to shed light on these mysteries.

The namesake: http://www.atlantafalcons.com/news/cheerleader-news.html

The Biases


The Cheerleader Effect is the tendency for individuals in groups to be rated as more attractive than if their photo were seen by itself (Walker and Vul, 2013). Let’s say that when people see Benjamin by himself, he is typically a 6 out of 10 on the attractiveness scale. The Cheerleader Effect is the tendency for Benjamin to be a 6.20 when he is seen next to three other people. In the Cheerleader Effect, the size of the group is not important. The benefit of being in a group of 4 people is similar to that of being in a group of 16 people. If you want more information on how Walker and Vul went about finding this bias, check out  this blog post on the CogBlog. 


The Group-Attractiveness Effect has two meanings. The GA Effect could refer to the Cheerleader Effect, or it could refer to the tendency for people’s assessment of the average attractiveness of a group to be higher than the average attractiveness of each member when they are by themselves (van Osch, et al., 2015). If you’re not a math professor, this means that when Aisha (8), Eduardo (8), Aiko (8) and Sam (8) go out to town, people may rate the average attractiveness of their squad as higher than an 8.


Both of these effects are known as biases because they involve distortions in how we view the world. In the case of the Cheerleader Effect, the individual’s attractiveness changes depending on how the individual is presented: in a group or by themselves. In the Group-Attractiveness Effect, our perception of the average attractiveness of a group is not the actual average attractiveness of each member. 


Attractiveness may sound like a funny topic to study, but when we think about all the consequences of appearing (un)attractive, attractiveness becomes a serious matter. From the way you are treated, to finding partners, to having self-confidence, attractiveness is a rather sensitive issue.


We must keep in mind, however, that neither of these effects work outstandingly well. As the psychologists would say, their effects are important enough to note but do not give anyone a great boost (Walker and Vul, 2013; van Osch, et al., 2015). Nevertheless, the fact that these biases exist (with some controversy, as we shall see) may tell us something about how we think. What must be going on in our minds when we see a group to cause these two biases?


There are three main theories that explain these effects. We will go through them one by one. It’s important to note that these theories are not mutually exclusive and might work together.


Ensemble Encoding


This theory suggests that if you see a bunch of a certain object, you can create a mental average of them all. This is why people are good at looking at an array of dots and giving the average size (Ariely, 2001; Chong and Treisman, 2003). This ability to average accurately can apply to faces. For instance, if you had to say the overall emotional state of some faces, you would be able to determine how happy or sad that group of faces is (Haberman and Whitney, 2009).

These faces are pretty happy: http://delicious-things.com


Attractiveness is a different story from the above cases. Unlike happiness or sadness, the average attractiveness of a group is viewed as higher than it really is. According to Walker and Vul, the group-face, the ensemble of some faces, is more attractive than the average of its members because it smoothes out their less attractive features (Walker and Vul, 2013).


The Group-Face/Ensemble Theory clearly connects to the Group-Attractiveness Effect. The GA Effect says that the perceived average attractiveness of a group of faces is skewed positive, and the Group-Face theory gives us an explanation: By averaging faces, an individual’s less attractive features will not be carried over to the group-face with their initial strength. Thus, the ensemble of grouped faces will be more attractive the average of its members (van Osch, et al., 2015).


Why is the group-face relevant to the Cheerleader Effect? If we want to know what being in a group can do for an individual, why should the group-face matter?  The key lies in memory. When we want to think back to one item in a group, that item’s traits will be pulled closer to those of the ensemble (Brady and Alvarez, 2011). Essentially, the group-face is part of how we reconstruct other faces. Memory is an active process. Memories do not perfectly capture what you experience. Instead, you take from knowledge that you do have in order to recreate memories (Roediger and DeSoto, 2015). One such stepping stone to reliving what an individual may have looked like is the group-face. Thus, the group-face could give individuals a boost since the group-face has already smoothed out some unattractive features of the group members. If you would like a more in depth blog post on the reconstructive nature of memory, this post shows just how variable memory can be and gives more examples of how we distort memories. 


Selective Attention


This next theory is self-explanatory: The more attractive the person is, the more attention they will receive. Attention is limited in scope. Since we can’t pay attention to everything, we selectively focus on what’s important (Kahneman, 1973).


Experimenters have confirmed that our gaze is not democratic. By tracking the movement of our eyes, experimenters found that we really do pay more attention to those that we deem more attractive (as if we were waiting for scientific confirmation of this phenomenon). Keeping this in mind, experimenters told participants in one study to make sure that they looked around the photo to notice people that they may not have paid as much attention to at first. By doing so, the GA Effect went down (van Osch, et al., 2015). This decrease in group attractiveness probably has to do with taking the spotlight off the most visually appealing figures. The more you pay attention to everyone, the more likely you’re going to realize, “Oh, these people are not quite what I thought they were.” If you’d like to check out some cases where people are actually paying attention to things that they are not directly looking at, click here.


Selective attention can not, however, completely explain these biases. Going back to our example from the beginning, let’s remember that Aisha (8), Eduardo (8), Aiko (8), and Sam (8) had a group-attractiveness of more than an 8. In a set of equally attractive people, there should be no benefit to looking at one person more than another. Nevertheless, there could be a group-attractiveness of higher than an 8. While selective attention plays a role in many cases, selective attention can not explain where this “extra attractiveness” comes from in groups of equal attractiveness. Although selective attention is supported by eye tracking technology, other theories, like ensemble encoding and our next theory, help us explain what selective attention can not.

Equally attractive people enjoying tapas: https://www.123rf.com



One school of thought in psychology, gestalt psychology, maintains that you organize information based on certain principles, such as grouping information based on how close or far away it is to you. Another theory from this school includes the Principle of Similarity, which is simply the idea that things that look alike are viewed as a group.


Let’s say that amongst a set of faces, there are probably features that you perceive as attractive which belong to multiple members. According to the Principle of Similarity, these attractive features will stand out since they are repeated (van Osch, et al., 2015). In the photo below, try to think about how you view the jars and pencils in terms of how close/far away they are from you (proximity) and how you group the pencils together (similarity). 


Unfortunately, experiments did not confirm that similarity plays an important role in these biases. In fact, the more the experimenters varied the attractiveness of the groups, the more the GA Effect appeared. If the Principle of Similarity plays a role in these biases, we would have seen more GA Effect for groups that had members with similarly attractive features (van Osch, et al., 2015).


Nevertheless, similarity may play some role in group attractiveness. Although the GA Effect is stronger for groups with varied attractiveness scores, the GA Effect still occurs in groups of equal attractiveness. Our favorite squad of 8’s may support the power of similarity, since our perception of their average attractiveness is higher than an 8. Perhaps in special cases where the individual attractiveness of a group are all the same, similarity leads to a heightened awareness of the good features that the group shares (van Osch, et al., 2015). For this reason, the Principle of Similarity may play a minor role in how attractive we find groups of people to be.  


If you’d like to read about an evolutionary theory that might contribute to the Cheerleader Effect, please check out this post by a fellow Colby student!

No blog post is complete without a DIY endorsement: http://masonjarcraftslove.com/

Trouble in Paradise


While the GA Effect is not critiqued too much, there is unease in the scientific community about the Cheerleader effect. In one study in Japan, experimenters failed to get really similar results to those of the pioneers of the Cheerleader Effect, Walker and Vul (Ojiro, et al., 2015). Getting the same results in multiple trials is known as replication. Replication is important because it tells you that the cause and effect relationship you think exists is not really due to other factors that are particular to one or just a couple experiments.  


In the Cheerleader Effect, the relationship that we want to exist is the idea that appearing in a group (cause) always leads you to appear more attractive (effect).  However, if the only times that experimenters can document this effect is among young Americans, we may actually be learning more about cultural values of attractiveness as opposed to universal, human feelings about attractiveness.


Initially, there was no Cheerleader Effect when the Japanese participants looked at the faces used in the American experiment. This could be due to the Own-Race Bias, which is the tendency for people to rate members of their own race as more attractive than those of other races (Ojiro, et al., 2015). The Own-Race Bias highlights how cultural values shape how we perceive attractiveness, regardless of whether or not these prejudices arise from little contact with or negative attitudes towards other races. If who is attractive can vary due to cultural reasons, can the impact of being in a group on attractiveness also vary across cultures?  


When the Japanese participants looked at Japanese faces, they showed similar trends to the American participants. Participants rated individuals as slightly more attractive when they appeared in a group. Nevertheless, these results are what the psychologists call “statistically insignificant.” Essentially, the results were so small, the extra attractiveness of appearing in a group may just have been due to chance and not because appearing in a group really changes how you perceive attractiveness.


The mixed believability of the Cheerleader Effect showcases how psychology is a complex mix of elements that are belong to all humans and elements that vary culture to culture. The ability to make clear conclusions despite human differences is the challenge of proving the Cheerleader Effect and GA Effect, and of psychological research in general.


Furthermore, our talk of “attractiveness” has been presumptuous. As I briefly discussed, what is attractive varies on an individual and cultural level. For these reasons, all attempts to make attractiveness seem like a neat and tidy science must be taken with a grain of salt… or a lot of grains for good measure.


Where Does This Leave Us?


There are still some pieces of information that we can take away from studying these biases. If you live in America, you can treat yourself to thinking that the Cheerleader Effect will help you out for as long as you stay here.


Furthermore, the GA Effect does not suffer from the same controversies as the Cheerleader Effect. Even if being in a group will not make you more attractive, you may benefit from being associated with a group-face if it is more attractive than your individual rating. Alas, we never quite leave high school in some ways, do we?


Let the scientists sort themselves out and give us a pitch on these biases in a couple years. In the meantime, keep the wing-people and perhaps appreciate the possibilities, yet premature realities, of these two biases.

Works Cited


Ariely D. (2001). Seeing sets: Representation by statistical properties. Psychological Science, 12, 157–162. 


Brady T. F., & Alvarez G. A. (2011). Hierarchical encoding in visual working memory: Ensemble statistics bias memory for individual items. Psychological Science, 22, 384–392.


Chong S. C., Treisman A. (2003). Representation of statistical properties. Vision Research, 43, 393–404. 


Haberman J., Whitney D. (2009). Seeing the mean: Ensemble coding for sets of faces. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 35, 718–734. 


Kahneman, D. (1973). Attention and effort (p. 246). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.


Ojiro, Yuko; Gobara, Akihiko; Nam, Giyeon; Sasaki, Kyoshiro; Kishimoto, Reiki; Yamada, Yuki; Miura, Kayo (2015). “Two replications of “Hierarchical encoding makes individuals in a group seem more attractive (2014; Experiment 4)””. The Quantitative Methods for Psychology. 11 (2). 


Roediger, Henry L. III; Desoto, Kurt A. (2015). “Reconstructive Memory, Psychology of” International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences


van Osch, Y.; Blanken, I.; Meijs, M. H. J.; van Wolferen, J. (2015). “A Group’s Physical Attractiveness Is Greater Than the Average Attractiveness of Its Members: The Group Attractiveness Effect”. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 41 (4): 559–574.


Walker, Drew; Vul, Edward (2013). “Hierarchical Encoding Makes Individuals in a Group Seem More Attractive” (PDF). Psychological Science. 25 (1): 230–5.

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