Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Want to be Seen as Better Looking? Barney Stinson May be Able to Help.

    Neil Patrick Harris (pictured right) is a talented actor likely best known for his portrayal of the womanizing ladies' man Barney Stinson on the television show How I Met Your Mother. One of his comedic trademarks is Barney's tendency to concoct bizarre theories about dating in his romantic pursuits, but it looks like this time he has attracted the interest of researchers. A theory the character created called the “cheerleader effect” is the prime subject of a research paper released by Walker and Vul (2013) entitled “Hierarchical Encoding Makes Individuals in a Group Seem More Attractive”. As bizarre as it seems, it looks like the evidence may support Barney's theory. True story.

    The “cheerleader effect”, as Barney put it, is the idea that people look more attractive when in a group than they do on their own. For example, any individual member of a cheerleading squad is going to be seen as more desirable when surrounded by other cheerleaders and less desirable when alone. To test this concept, Walker and Vul (2013) showed both male and female participants photographs containing only members of the opposite sex and had them rate how appealing each face was on a scale from “Unattractive” to “Attractive”. The trick was that each photo would only be shown for a few seconds before disappearing, at which point participants were asked to give their rating. What the researchers also did was show each face as part of a group as well as having participants rate the same face cropped out of the group picture. Basically, each face used in the study was rated by the same participant twice. One rating for the individual face and another for that same individual's face within the larger group picture. By comparing the ratings between how each face was rated shown alone versus shown in a group the researchers were able to see if there indeed was evidence for a “cheerleader effect”.

Anyone with a bad yearbook
photo may be comforted to
know it could have been worse.
    As it turns out, Walker and Vul (2013) did indeed find evidence to support the idea that people's faces are viewed as more attractive when seen as part of a group. This effect also persisted when the researchers took isolated headshots that were not from the same photo and arranged them yearbook style. Even though these faces were not part of a “natural group” simply presenting them together was enough to make individual faces look better (according to participant's ratings). They also tried shortening the amount of time participants had to view the faces and found that the “cheerleader effect” was still present. These results seem to suggest that there's something about groups of faces that cause people to give out higher attraction ratings, but what could it be?

    The researchers have a theory that may shed some light on just why the grouped faces are rated higher than the same faces presented alone. Walker and Vul (2013) say that when people see objects in a group they tend to combine the objects to form, in this case, an average sort of  "group face" that represents the larger bunch. The negative effect that certain features (such as an unsightly mole or a big nose) have on someone's appearance tend to get diminished when the individual's face is averaged out to fit in with the group. Because of this people are more likely to find the individual person better looking since the "group face" has mentally smoothed over some of the rough patches and averaged out their features. This effect was also demonstrated in the study when the researchers performed the exact same photo experiment as before, but had the faces that participants were supposed to rate blurred. Faces that had been blurred were still rated as better when part of a group versus alone, but even more surprising is that blurred faces were rated as more attractive than non-blurred faces! It would appear that being viewed as “average” really isn't all that bad.

Here we see a comedic example of the "cheerleader effect" from the 2011 film Hall Pass.
    Now that you've got the knowledge, all you have to do is put it to work. For anyone looking to increase their odds at the dating game, here are a few effortless tricks you could try which use the findings from this research. Haven't had any luck at the bar? Walker and Vul (2013) would suggest bringing a few wingmen or wingwomen along to help complement your facial features. Nervous about asking someone out on a date? Try making it a group date to take the pressure off and to earn yourself a few beauty points thanks to the “cheerleader effect”. Not getting enough likes on your Facebook selfies? Is your online dating profile collecting more dust than dates? Maybe try swapping your profile picture out with a group shot to spice things up a bit. The world's your oyster now that you've got a scientific secret to seduce your sweetheart! Just remember the “cheerleader effect” and, as Barney would say, be awesome.

- Canaan Legault

Walker, D., & Vul, E. (2013). Hierarchical encoding makes individuals in a group seem more attractive. Psychological Science,doi:10.1177/0956797613497969

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