Cheerleader Effect: Why People Are More Beautiful in Groups

New research recommends recruiting a wingman/woman with a complementary face.

Who should I hang out with if I want to look the most attractive? And how many of said people must I acquire?

The basic idea of research published this week in the journal Psychological Science is that our asymmetries and disproportionalities tend to "average out" amid a group of faces, and our weird little faces are perceived as slightly less weird.

(Psychological Science)

Drew Walker and Edward Vul of the University of California, San Diego, did five experiments wherein subjects rated the attractiveness of people in photographs. Some people were pictured alone, and others were in groups. (Sometimes the "groups" were actually collages of people alone.)

In every case, for men and women, the people in groups got higher attractiveness ratings. Walker reasoned: "Average faces are more attractive, likely due to the averaging out of unattractive idiosyncrasies." They refer to this as the "cheerleader effect."

[IMAGE DESCRIPTION]
Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders (LM Otero/AP)

The cheerleader effect was first entered into Urban Dictionary in 2008, where it is defined by exemplary, hyperbolic premises: "Altogether the cheerleading team looks attractive ... [however] on closer inspection [each person] is quite ugly, [another heteronormative example might be] the spice girls, [or] the group of women who dance in a circle at the bar-usually with a pile of purses in the middle [Ed. note: What?], [or the sort of situation that] occurs at any Canadian fraternity common room [Ed. note: Gross generalization] where all together the men look hot but when checked out are actually bunk-ass."

The cheerleader effect is apparently familiar to watchers of the popular TV show How I Met Your Mother, where it was introduced in the seventh episode of the fourth season. Neil Patrick Harris' character, leaning on a barstool "unimpressed with the talent in here tonight," refers to a group of women in a bar as collectively attractive but individually "sled dogs."

Sled dogs are actually gorgeous, but it was meant as an insult.

[IMAGE DESCRIPTION]
Robin Williams in a Broncos' Pony Express cheerleader outfit at Denver's Mile High Stadium in 1979 (AP)

Then from boorish observation to scientific postulate, Walker and Vul say the effect is borne of "the fact that the visual system represents objects as an ensemble, individual objects are biased toward the ensemble average, and average faces are perceived to be more attractive than faces in isolation. Together, these phenomena should cause faces in a group to appear more like the group average than when presented alone, and that group average should tend to be more attractive than the individual faces, on average."

Notably, though, the effect did not depend on the number of faces in the group. Any size group should do. "Having a few wingmen or wingwomen," Walker and Vul conclude—writing in the academic journal article"may indeed be a good dating strategy, particularly if their facial features complement and average out one’s unattractive idiosyncrasies."

Maybe! Good only if it's serendipitous of course, and not because you're consciously cultivating a friend group that mitigates your physical insecurities. Nervous laughter.

The nice part of the idea is that it might give us another excuse to socialize and travel in numbers. For almost all people, relationships are integral to health, and time spent socializing offline correlates with quality of life. Maybe we actually look more attractive among friends not solely because of complementary bone structures, but because we're happier.

Presented by

James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He writes the health column for the monthly magazine and hosts the video series If Our Bodies Could Talk.

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