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

Oct 29, 2013 12:01 PM EDT

A team of psychologists took a cue from the TV sitcom "How I Met Your Mother" for their latest study, which reports that people find others more attractive when they are in groups.

Barney Stinson, the "ladykiller" character on the popular show, dubbed the phenomenon the "cheerleader effect," suggesting that having a few friends around might be a way to boost your attractiveness.

University of California, San Diego, psychological scientists Drew Walker and Edward Vul have found that the TV line is grounded in reality, reporting that people tend to "average out" the features of faces in a group, thereby perceiving the individuals within a group differently than they would if looking at them alone.

It might be easy to jump to the conclusion that being surrounded by attractive people will boost your own overall appearance as attractive, or the inverse.

But Walker said that while being average-looking might seem like a bad thing, it's actually not the case when it comes to assessing attractiveness.

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

To evaluate the reality of the cheerleader effect, the psychologists preformed five experiments with more than 130 undergraduate students. They suspected that the attractiveness of average faces, coupled with peoples' tendency to encode groups of objects as an ensemble may indeed support the cheerleader effect.

Study participants were asked to evaluate pictures of 100 people and asked to rate their attractiveness. Sometimes the person being scored would be part of a group image with two other people; other times the image would be cropped so that the person being rated would appear alone.

Being evaluated amongst a group led individuals to be perceived as more attractive, the researchers found, adding that overall, the find was consistent among males and females.

The cheerleader effect, however, does not significantly raise a person's attractiveness. The researchers found that it was enough to raise someone rated in the 49th percentile alone to the 51st percentile when viewed in a group.

"The effect is definitely small, but some of us need all the help we can get," Vul joked.

Interestingly, the researchers found that the group image need not have cohesion for the cheerleader effect to come into play.

When participants were asked to rate individuals pictured in collages of four, nine and 16 other people, the "group" picture was still rated higher than it was if presented alone.

The researchers are currently exploring the nuances of the individual findings in their five experiments.

"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," they said in a statement.

Vul and Walker's research is published in the journal Psychological Science.

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