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People 'more attractive' when seen in a group

Barney Stinson’s ‘cheerleader effect’ is real, people.

Neil Patrick Harris, who plays Barney Stinson - he of the 'cheerleader effect' theory in How I Met Your Mother.
Neil Patrick Harris, who plays Barney Stinson - he of the 'cheerleader effect' theory in How I Met Your Mother.
Image: Zach Corden/Invision/AP/PA Images

THE SO-CALLED ‘cheerleader effect’ – in which people seem more attractive when seen in a group, rather than on their own – has a scientific basis.

The Psychological Science journal published a paper this week from the University of California which shows research that concludes:

… individual faces will seem more attractive when presented in a group because they will appear more similar to the average group face, which is more attractive than group members’ individual faces.

This result, says the paper’s authors, is consistent with the “cheerleader effect”. (Note: it works best if the group is all of the same gender.)

The researchers – Drew Walker and Edward Vul from the Department of Psychology at UC, San Diego – studied three different ways in which humans take cues from each other’s faces:

  1. We automatically prioritise processing people’s faces in context of a group rather than individually, if a person is with other people when we see them
  2. We then measure each person’s face against the average attractiveness of the group
  3. Average-looking people seem more attractive when they appear “similar to the average group face”.

The paper says: “We tested this hypothesis in five experiements in which subjects rated the attractiveness of faces presented either alone or in a group with the same gender.”

Or as researcher Drew Walker explains:

Average faces are more attractive, likely due to the averaging out of unattractive idiosyncrasies. Perhaps it’s like Tolstoy’s families: Beautiful people are all alike, but every unattractive person is unattractive in their own way.

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.

Of course, if you’re a fan of How I Met Your Mother, you’ll be thinking: Wow. Barney Stinson was right.

A press release from the journal reminds us:

“This phenomenon — first dubbed the “cheerleader effect” by ladykiller Barney Stinson on the popular TV show How I Met Your Mother — suggests that having a few friends around might be one way to boost perceived attractiveness.”

As per this clip.

As Barney adds: “Also known as the Bridesmaid Paradox, Sorority Girl Syndrome and – for a brief window in the ’90s – the Spice Girls Conspiracy.” The effect is similar for groups of men – coin your own phrases.

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