It all stems from a joke on the TV show How I Met Your Mother. Character Barney Stinson points out that when women sit in groups that they all seem more attractive than if they were sitting alone. He calls this the Cheerleader Effect and likens it to how a squad of cheerleaders look gorgeous mid-routine but comparatively plain Jane alone.
It’s a funny premise, good for a few laughs. But probably bogus, right? After all, it’s a sitcom, not science.
Well, interestingly enough, two sets of researchers went on to test the hypothesis and confirmed that the Cheerleader Effect indeed exists.
Cheerleader Effect – Feature Counterbalance or Selective Attention?
The first research team found the phenomenon to hold true in 2013 across a series of five studies. In these studies, participants were shown both male and female faces, both individually and as part of groups, with the orders randomized.
Participants consistently rated people of any gender more attractive when they were part of a group than they were when considered individually. This held true regardless of whether that group was male-only, female-only, or mixed. The effect was also present over a wide range of group sizes. The researchers were able to find the effect in groups of people that were as small as 4 and as large as 16.
The researchers proposed that participants were visually averaging together the appearances of individuals when they appeared in groups. Effectively, they argued, it was quite possible that any idiosyncrasies that would normally be perceived as flaws (or less attractive) were counterbalanced by the appearances of the others in the group.
Another team replicated the original findings in a later study in 2015 but came up with a different explanation. They argued that selective attention was hard at work. Essentially, the researchers proposed, participants are paying attention to the most attractive members of a group and essentially that attractiveness is also attributed to the rest of the group.
Whatever the case, it does seem like Cheerleader Effect is alive and well.
This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.