Cheerleader Effect

 Perception & Judgment

Walker and Vul (2013)

Do we look more attractive when we are in a group?

Background

As defined by Walker and Vul (2013), the Cheerleader Effect means that “people seem more attractive in a group than when considered individually”. Although intriguing at first, this phenomenon can be explained in a quite simple and elegant manner: “We propose that this effect arises from 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 (Langlois and Roggmann, 1990). 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” (Walker and Vul, 2013).

Interestingly, all three of the previous premises can be derived from Kahneman’s (2011) Dual System Theory and the idea that our automatic “system 1” favors ease of processing over anything else. Rather than processing faces individually, which is time consuming when they are in a group, our automatic perception creates an “ensemble average” and uses this  “gist” representation to simplify each of them. This is to their advantage, because typical faces are easier to process, and this efficiency is misattributed as greater attractiveness. This is in line with Perceptual Set Theory (Allport, 1955), which states that perception is not a passive bottom-up process, but an active, top-down construction, as environmental stimuli and sensory inputs are registered within a preset mental frame, which can involve motivations, expectations, or, in this case, assimilations.

Participants & Procedures

25 undergraduate students  (21 women, 4 men) from the University of California (San Diego, CA, USA).

The researchers selected 100 group photos of women and cropped them so that they would include 3 people. Each 3-person picture was then further cropped into 3 individual portraits. Participants were then shown the group and individual portraits in random order, and asked to rate their attractiveness by clicking on a scale from “unattractive” to “attractive” (see below.) Participants thus rated each of the 300 faces twice: once in a group, and once in isolation. When presented in a group, the face to be rated was indicated by an arrow. All 3 pictures from the same group always appeared in succession and in random order. Likewise, whether the faces appeared in a group or in isolation first was randomized. 

Findings

The Cheerleader Effect-size (which showed large variations between subjects) was found to be .055, meaning that appearing in a group increased perceived attractiveness by an amount equal to 5.5% of the standard deviation for individual faces. Thus, the Cheerleader Effect was confirmed. On average, the participants rated the female faces as more attractive when shown in a group than when shown in isolation.

IA Tip

The calculations used in this study are a little complex. However, students may simply compare the medians obtained in each condition. Apart from this, the study can be replicated without any modification. However, students should be mindful of relevant ethical considerations at every step of this experiment. The task involved should be made clear to participants, in case they do not wish to participate. Likewise, the study should be conducted in a respectful way, including in the selection of stimulus faces (students may want to use AI-generated pictures), as well as in the labeling of the scale.

Citation

Walker, D., Vul, E. (2013). Hierarchical Encoding Makes Individuals in a Group Seem More Attractive. Psychological Science, 25, 230-235.

https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797613497969