The Cheerleader Effect: Why You're More Attractive in a Group

A new study demonstrates how a group can complement and "average out" one’s unattractive idiosyncrasies.

Barney, the serial womanizer played by Neil Patrick Harris in the CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother, knows how to pick out a hot one. 

In the seventh episode of the show's fourth season, Barney complains that there are no attractive women in a bar, whereupon his friend points out a group of women in the corner. Both agree that the women are indeed attractive, but Barney knows this is simply because his brain is playing a trick on him.

Barney is experiencing the so-called Cheerleader Effect. His brain is calculating the average of the women's looks - which might constitute an attractive group, but individually each woman leaves something to be desired. 

A new study proves Barney is correct in his assessment. 

In fact, you too can hide your flaws and "average out" in a group, according to a study published in the journal Psychological Science. In a series of experiments involving men and women, subjects gave higher attractiveness ratings to people in groups or grouped in a collage with other people. 

What's the Big Idea?

Drew Walker and Edward Vul of the University of California, San Diego point out that when we are confronted with groups of objects our brains compute a statistical summary representation, or an ensemble. When it comes to human faces - whether we are processing their emotions or physical attractiveness, research shows that we compute the mean level of each set. Individual members of the group "are biased toward the ensemble average" and we read average faces as attractive. 

So how does this impact dating strategy, or, for that matter, the makeup of your boy band? Should you travel in a group or fly solo?

Of course, this is a rather shallow way to decide who to socialize with, or enter a business relationship with, but the fact of the matter is that it literally pays to be perceived as attractive. For instance, a study of 300 Dutch advertising agencies found that firms with better-looking executives had higher revenues. People who are perceived as attractive are also perceived to be healthy and intelligent. They are also more persuasive communicators. We believe they are more trustworthy, so we elect them to Congress. Whoops. 

Like it or not, we are programmed this way because we are on the lookout for mates who we perceive as healthy, and best capable of reproduction. So isn't it good to know that if you're having a bad hair day it's a good thing to have a few friends at your side?

As Walker and Vul conclude, "having a few wingmen or wingwomen may indeed be a good dating strategy, particularly if their facial features complement and average out one’s unattractive idiosyncrasies."

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

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