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Using the “Cheerleader Effect” to Shine on Social Media

Do faces appear more attractive individually or together with others?

Key points

  • One’s face appears more attractive with other people than alone, as long as the others are equally or less attractive.
  • One key explanation of the so-called Cheerleader Effect is that people switch from internal to external evaluation standards.
  • The same processes are used in marketing: Low-budget products benefit from assortments, but luxury products do not.

Barney Stinson, a main character in the TV series How I Met Your Mother, once hypothesized that people are perceived as more attractive in a group than when seen individually. He called this the “Cheerleader Effect.” Several scientific studies have proven Barney right, demonstrating that a face appears more attractive in a group than it would on its own.

This effect is relevant when posting selfies on social media. Do I appear more attractive by myself or with others? Do I benefit when the others are highly attractive, because people see me as belonging to the attractive group? Or do I benefit from unattractive others, because it makes me appear relatively attractive? And to what extent does my objective attractiveness play a role?

Switching from internal to external evaluation standards

According to Barney Stinson, any face in any group appears more attractive than it does individually. Yet Barney seems to have been wrong in this. What is more likely is that a well-known marketing concept comes to play—using people’s tendency to perceive products differently when presented separately compared to when presented side by side. Similarly, when evaluating a face individually we have only our internal standards to guide us. Our evaluation is based mainly on these standards, so long as we have sufficient information to make an assessment. This means observers do not draw on additional information to form their impressions when they evaluate unambiguously beautiful people, like Scarlett Johansson or Chris Hemsworth. As a result, they appear equally attractive when viewed individually or in a group.

However, with most faces, attractiveness is more ambiguous. Observers will often consider the attractiveness of flanking faces, when they are available. In such cases, one’s face is evaluated in contrast to the accompanying faces. In other words, the standards of comparison are no longer based on internal criteria, as now the observers are using external criteria as well. Now increase the attractiveness of faces when they are compared to less attractive faces. However, a face in the context of beautiful faces risks appearing less attractive by comparison.

First Impressions

Importantly, research on the Cheerleader Effect has focused on evaluating unknown faces flanked by unknown faces. This corresponds to any situation where we make a first impression. It is possible that in other situations a face’s attractiveness could benefit from the presence of highly attractive faces. For example, when conditioning is involved, and one associates a face with those of their attractive friends. So, in the long run, it is possible to benefit from being among attractive others. However, when it comes to first impressions, faces benefit when they’re flanked by less attractive faces. This is true even if unattractive faces are flanked by unattractive faces: They are perceived as more beautiful because now the standard of comparison has changed. The less attractive a face, the more it benefits from the presence of other faces. However, attractive faces can benefit as well. We used pictures from the Chicago face database with about 600 faces, and we observed that even for faces in the top 25 percent beauty rankings in the database, their attractiveness increased when they were presented alongside unattractive faces.

The Cheerleader Effect has been repeatedly replicated. The effect occurs if the faces are in the same picture, and if the faces are on separate pictures on the same screen. The position makes no difference: faces in the middle benefit just as much as faces on the left or right do. The effect does not only occur in natural settings. Even computer-generated faces look better if flanked by unattractive faces.

Conclusion

To sum up, and to give some advice to those who use social media: It is a well-known marketing practice that we typically encounter low-budget products, such as cheap watches, presented side by side, whereas luxury goods are presented separately. Similar practices are relevant for self-marketing on social media. You appear more attractive in a selfie with other people than in isolation, as long as the others are equally or less attractive. The more attractive you are, the less you’ll gain from this effect, but it’s important to keep in mind that it won’t help to post a selfie taken with other people in the frame if they are more attractive.

References

Messner, C., Carnelli, M., & Höhener, P. S. (2021). Change in Evaluation Mode Can Cause a Cheerleader Effect. Frontiers in psychology, 12, 1375.

Messner, C., Carnelli, M., & Höhener, P. S. (2021a). Scarlett Johansson does not profit from a cheerleader effect, but John C. Reilly does. Zenodo, doi.org/10.5281/ZENODO.4646965

Messner, C., Carnelli, M., & Höhener, S. P. (2021b). Conceptual replication that the general evaluability theory predicts the cheerleader effect. Zenodo, doi.org/10.5281/ZENODO.4733430

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