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T-E-A-M GO TEAM: The Cheerleader Effect

Middle School Man…

In middle school I hated the popular girls because they were so damn pretty. Have you ever hated a group of people because they were good looking? Maybe you thought that a team was automatically attractive without seeing every member? If so then you, like middle-school-me, have fallen victim to the Cheerleader Effect.


According to Barney Stinson in the hit show How I Met Your Mother, shown in the link above, you’re not alone in thinking that a group as a whole is more attractive than its individual parts. Like Barney, cognitive psychologists have tried to tease apart this effect, sometimes known as the group attractiveness effect, to try and figure out what makes a group of people SO much more attractive than those that constitute the group.


That’s Pretty… Pretty Primitive – Theories Behind the Effect

For years, psychologists have tried to figure out what makes someone attractive. Many have discovered that average, or common, faces are attractive. But what is it about average faces that cause Bobby to break out in a nervous sweat every time he sees Jackie at lunch? Previous research suggests that there are two theories that could explain what makes someone attractive: the evolutionary theory and the prototype theory (Langlois & Rogman 1990).


The evolutionary theory ties in with Charles Darwin’s idea of natural selection (found here for as low as $0.50). More can be read in Darwin’s “On the Origin of a Species,” but to spare you the 500 plus pages and 19th century jargon let’s just say that the most favorable characteristics for mating and reproducing viable young tend to be the most average, common characteristics. If these characteristics were to be shown on a distribution with the most popular (“Nice Ears), most common ones being in the middle then characteristics that are the more extreme, more unfavorable (“Detached ears” and “Ultrasonic ears”) will fall out on the wings of this so-called “characteristic distribution of attractive features” as seen in the histogram below.


Histogram of the frequency of ear characteristics.


The second theory claimed by Langlois and Rogman (1990) states that the average face is the most attractive because, similar to the evolutionary theory, it’s just a conglomeration of the most popular features. They claimed this as the prototype explanation. A prototype is a made-up mental representation in your head of the “best” of any particular category.


Let’s say you are asked to list types of furniture. You’re most likely going to say chair, table, and couch because these are the “best” examples of the furniture category, those would fall in the center of the distribution shown above. You probably won’t say armoire in your first three items listed because that would not be the most automatic example of furniture. When considering faces for attractiveness, you would most likely say a similar thing that the “best” example would be an attractive one because attractive faces are those that represent the average category, or the features that would fall in the center of the distribution shown above.


Now that we’ve explored why average faces tend to be more attractive let’s take a closer look at this Cheerleader Effect. Psychologists, such as Walker and Vul (2013), have mainly concluded that the reason people think individuals in groups tend to be more attractive than by himself or herself is due to some sort of face averaging.


Instead of creating an idea of what an attractive person looks like you actually automatically average the faces of the group because you don’t look closely at each individual. Walker and Vul (2013) looked at groups of about 4, 6, and 16 people and found that there was not much change in the Cheerleader Effect across the groups but just that the mere presence of other people makes the group more attractive. However, this is inconsistent with other studies have found that more people did lead to a greater effect, but we won’t discuss that right now.


Walker and Vul (2013) also hypothesized that groups with the most similarity (similar clothing or facial features) would increase the Cheerleader Effect due to the group looking even more similar and therefore aiding in the process of group averaging. Despite this idea, their results did not hold true. To read more about these findings you can click here.


Who Dat – Selective Attention

So we have discovered some things about the Cheerleader Effect such that groups make those in the group seem more attractive than if they are just by themselves. We have discovered in the study done by Walker and Vul (2013) that we do this by taking a group average of all of the faces. But one study, done by van Osch, Blanken, Meijs, and van Wolferen (2015) shows that this might not be what we’re actually doing.


Part of the study by van Osch and colleagues (2015) showed that we actually have better memories for the most attractive group member. So it could be possible that instead of automatically averaging the faces we’re actually basing our judgements off of the most attractive person in the group, like fox in black shirt two from the right shown in the picture below. Van Osch and colleagues concluded that the most attractive person gets the most attention based on the Selective Attention Hypothesis.


Image taken with permission from the Facebook of Emma Berger (my girlfriend).


Selective attention is defined as the process of paying attention to one stimulus when there are multiple stimuli around you, and often the most interesting stimulus catches your attention. For example, paying attention to the most attractive face when there are plenty of others around the attractive face. This would explain why we have a better memory for the most attractive person.


Van Osch and colleagues (2015) also found that, like Walker and Vul’s study (2013), heterogeneity creates a larger Cheerleader Effect than homogeneity (remember: they discovered that dressing the same didn’t make your group attractiveness go up). Heterogeneity means to be diverse in character or content and homogeneity means to be similar in character or content. Ergo if you take a picture with people that are less attractive than you, you will look better. I’m not saying turf your friends if they’re better looking than you, I’m just reporting facts.


Lastly, van Osch and colleagues (2015) found that when you view groups of five or more, there tends to be a larger Cheerleader Effect or overall attractiveness of the group. The psychologists said that in the previous study by Walker and Vul (2013) that with groups less than five you most likely do perform group averaging of faces.


Both the studies done by Walker and Vul (2013) and van Osch and colleagues (2015) can help tease apart the Cheerleader Effect. Based on these two studies, the Cheerleader Effect most likely occurs because of “face averaging” in groups less than 5 people but in groups greater than that, Selective Attention most likely constitutes what makes a group more attractive.

Spark Notes

Considering you may not read or make it through all 800 words of what I just said let’s make some spark notes:

  1. The girls in my middle school class may be pretty, but I was definitely subject to the Cheerleader Effect
  2. Attractive faces tend to be average faces
  3. We tend to pay attention to the most attractive person in the group
  4. When you have a varied selection of people in a group, the Cheerleader Effect will be stronger
  5. A picture with lots of people, and some very attractive people, will increase the Cheerleader Effect


Thanks for reading! Visit Colby College’s CogBlog for more fun stuff like this! You can learn about why you can never plan enough time to do your work or why you feel the need to stick to the status quo!


Haberman, J., Harp, T., & Whitney, D. (2009). Averaging facial expression over time. Journal of Vision, 9(11). doi: 10.1167/9.11.1

Langlois, J. H., & Roggman, L. A. (1990). Attractive faces are only average. Psychological Science, 1(2), 115-121. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.1990.tb00079.x

Maner, J. K., Kenrick, D. T., Becker, D. V., Delton, A. W., Hofer, B., Wilbur, C. J., & Neuberg, S. L. (2003). Sexually Selective Cognition: Beauty Captures the Mind of the Beholder. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85(6), 1107-1120. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.85.6.1107

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. doi: 10.1177/0146167215572799

Walker, D., & Vul, E. (2014). Hierarchical encoding makes individuals in a group seem more attractive. Psychological Science, 25(1), 230-235. doi: 10.1177/0956797613497969

  1. April 25th, 2017 at 17:13 | #1

    Awesome post, Anna. I loved the section captions and the spark notes at the end! It could also be interesting to consider the way that automatic top-down processes are involved in the cheerleader effect. The phenomenon definitely seems involuntary and also as though we’re analyzing other people as the sum of the group not by each individual component (very gestalt)!

  2. April 26th, 2017 at 10:58 | #2

    @Madeline Taylor
    you’re so right Maddie! The automatic nature of this effect could be one of the reasons its difficult to tease apart. I think this idea could also tie into how we use the Fusiform Face Area. If you recall this area in our brains is used for recognizing faces or other objects that are seen in high frequency (like types of birds if you’re an ornithologist). Therefore this area could be responsible for why our attractive face processing is so automatic!

  3. May 8th, 2017 at 17:47 | #3

    This is an amazing post! I love how you included the video from HIMYM to start, as well as the humor and organization that allowed this post to flow. I also found the theories that could possibly explain the cheerleader effect really interesting, and how face averaging works for groups under 5, while selective attention is responsible for larger groups. Reading this, I immediately thought of this group of girls who I went to middle school and high school with. Although I can definitely say that the Cheerleader Effect towards them decreased as the years went on, people would generally think that this group of girls was the prettiest! However, when looking at each individual member of this group, it was also the general thought that individually, they were nothing special – certainly not as special as they seemed as a group. This makes me think of the mere exposure effect, and how despite what the mere exposure effect states (repeated exposure leads to greater liking/attractiveness), this group of girls got less attractive as a group to other people (lower Cheerleader Effect) the more we were exposed to them (opposite of the mere exposure effect). I went to middle and high school with the same people for 6 years, so according to the mere exposure effect, this group should have gotten more attractive to others. I would be interested to examine the mere exposure effect in conjunction with the cheerleader effect by looking at if the mere exposure effect still holds true in groups, and if it heightens or lowers the cheerleader effect.

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