Cheerleader Effect

Cheerleader effect

The cheerleader effect, also known as the group attractiveness effect, is the cognitive bias which causes people to think individuals are more attractive when they are in a group. The concept has been backed up by clinical research by psychologists Drew Walker and Edward Vul. The effect occurs because of the brain’s tendency to calculate the average properties of an object when viewing a group.

Walker and Vul proposed that this effect arises due to the interplay of three cognitive phenomena: the human visual system takes ‘ensemble representations’ of faces in a group; perception of individuals is biased towards this average; average faces are more attractive, perhaps due to ‘averaging out of unattractive idiosyncrasies.’

When all three of these phenomena are taken together, the individual faces will seem more attractive in a group, as they appear more similar to the average group face, which is more attractive than members’ individual faces. Across five studies by Walker and Vul, participants rated the attractiveness of male and female faces when shown in a group photo, and an individual photo, with the order of the photographs randomised. The people photographed got higher scores for their group photos.

This effect occurs with male-only, female-only and mixed gender groups, and both small and large groups. The effect also occurs to the same extent with groups of four and 16 people. Participants in studies looked more at the attractive people than the unattractive people in the group. The effect does not occur because group photos give the impression that individuals have more social or emotional intelligence: this was shown to be the case by a study which used individual photos grouped together in a single image, rather than photos taken of people in a group.

The phrase was coined by the character Barney Stinson in ‘Not a Father’s Day,’ an episode of the television show ‘How I Met Your Mother’ first aired in 2008. Barney points out to his friends a group of women that initially seem attractive, but who all seem to be very ugly when examined individually. This point is made again by Ted and Robin later in the episode, who note that some of Barney’s friends also only seem attractive in a group.

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