It turns out that Barney Stinson on the TV show How I Met Your Mother was right when he coined the phrase the “cheerleader effect”.
According to psychologists at the University of California, San Diego, people have a tendency to rate people as more attractive when they’re part of a group than when they’re alone.
It is because people tend to average out the features of faces in a group.
In so doing, they perceive an individual’s face as more average than they would be otherwise.
Being average looking might sound like a bad thing, but the research hints thats not necessarily the case for attractiveness.
Everybody is a Star
“Average faces are more attractive, likely due to the averaging out of unattractive idiosyncrasies,” explains co-author Drew Walker. “Perhaps it’s like Tolstoy’s families: Beautiful people are all alike, but every unattractive person is unattractive in their own way.”
Walker and colleague Edward Vul theorized that the attractiveness of average faces, together with the tendency to encode groups of objects as an ensemble, might actually support the cheerleader effect.
“You stand out in the crowd only because you have these many, many carrying you on their shoulders.”
To test their suspicions, the researchers performed five experiments with over 130 undergraduate students.
Participants in the study were shown pictures of 100 people, then asked to rate their attractiveness.
Sometimes the person being rated was in a group portrait with two other people, and other times the pictures were cropped to show the person alone.
2 Percentile Bump
By and large, participants rated both female and male subjects as more attractive in the group shot than when pictured alone.
Being seen in a group bestows an attractiveness benefit that’s roughly enough to bump someone from the 49th percentile to the 51st percentile of attractiveness.
“The effect is definitely small, but some of us need all the help we can get,” Vul jokes.
In other experiments, Walker and Vul found that the pictures don’t need to be from a cohesive group portrait to obtain this effect.
When participants were asked to rate the attractiveness of one person out of a collage of 4, 9, and 16 pictures, the “group” picture was still rated more highly than when that individual’s picture was presented alone.
“If the average is more attractive because unattractive idiosyncrasies tend to be averaged out, then individuals with complimentary facial features — one person with narrow eyes and one person with wide eyes, for example — would enjoy a greater boost in perceived attractiveness when seen together, as compared to groups comprised of individuals who have more similar features,” says Vul.