Cheerleader Effect – Cognitive Biases (Pt.12)

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The cheerleader effect, or group-attractiveness effect, is a tendency to value appearances based on a comparative assessment with the surroundings. Certain traits will appear more attractive due to the perceived amplification from contrast. When looked at individually they no longer get the contrasting cheerleader effect.

Surprisingly, this is a new term, from a 2008 “How I Met Your Mother” episode, which has since been backed up with psychological research:


Another mainstream media use of the effect was in the movie Hall Pass:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N-GxKKqF5A4

This works not only for valuations of female appearances. Visual affinity is part of how we have a basic affinity for what is pleasing and pleasurable to all of our senses. This can be taken to an extreme and used to validate objectification and valuation of others based on their appearance primarily or solely.

If anyone is concerned about objectification of women, it’s valid. But we can easily objectify men as well. This was confirmed in the clinical research on this psychological bias that this effect applies to both genders.

In 2013, Drew Walker and Edward Vu did five studies to rate male and female attractiveness. Randomized photos of men and women in groups, and individually, were judged by participants. Higher scores were generally given to anyone in a group photo compared to their individual photo.

Walker and Vu suggest three factors to explain how this comes about:

  1. The human visual system takes “ensemble representations” of faces in a group.
  2. Perception of individuals is biased towards this average.
  3. Average faces are more attractive, perhaps due to “averaging out of unattractive idiosyncracies”.

This first point means we take a snapshot generalized assessment/view of what we look at in our visual system, including faces. The second point is that this generalized assessment is an average we form and use as a bias to judge the each individual int he group compared to this average. The final point explains what happens as a result of this comparison and contrast, that the general average attractiveness makes those higher than the average appear more attractive, and this is the cheerleader effect.

I notice there are two ways to interpret the “cheerleader” part.

  1. As the group of cheerleaders generlized into an attractive average (they all look good together).
  2. That the group’s general average attractiveness level is cheerleading the more attractive individuals. The higher attractive members are being cheered to the top or front of the “pack” as the “leaders” of attractiveness, which channels into the overall cheerleading group attractiveness effect.

Just something I would mention in passing. 🙂

Cheerleaders can look like the most attractive women when they are together. But when you look closer, the trees are seen from the forest in greater detail, and the shapes, similarities and differences that make up the beauty of the group are more vivid, compared to the aggregate generalized image of an average that the “forest” produces. The dichotomy of the individual and universal, of the specific and general, is a feature that comes up frequently in cognitive biases.

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