Science backs up this ‘How I Met Your Mother’ theory on hot people

Some might recall the “Not A Father’s Day,” episode of the popular CBS show How I Met Your Mother. In it, Barney Stinson, portrayed by the decidedly less obnoxious Neil Patrick Harris, bolts to correct his sitcom comrades after they remark upon a table of attractive women. “You have just become victims of the cheerleader effect,”

The phenomenon as Stinson explains, that occurs when a group of individuals seems “hot” but only as a group  The wisdom of the cheerleader effect is then demonstrated to comedic effect, with one of the girls in actuality being portrayed by cast member Jason Segel in a wig and dress. Believe it or not, research actually supports the primetime TV show’s coinage. A recent Darting Scout survey suggests that the public at large has become somewhat aware of this curiosity. Eighteen percent of all dating profile pictures feature multiple people in them, with the country of Ireland taking the lead.

The assimilation effect

But this wasn’t the first study to prove that this television theory rings true. The first scientists to do so-did so back in 2013. Drew Walker & Edward Vul first observed the cognitive bias across five studies titled, Hierarchical Encoding Makes Individuals in a Group Seem More Attractive. “We propose that this effect arises via an interplay of three cognitive phenomena: (a) The visual system automatically computes ensemble representations of faces presented in a group, (b) individual members of the group are biased toward this ensemble average, and (c) average faces are attractive. Taken together, these phenomena suggest that individual faces will seem more attractive when presented in a group because they will appear more similar to the average group face, which is more attractive than group members’ individual faces,” they wrote in the abstract.

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The two researchers had participants rate the physical attractiveness of male and female subjects via an individual photo and then in groups, segmented in a randomized order. The individuals consistently scored higher in their group photos irrespective of the size of the groups.  Interestingly enough, the results did not indicate that they were informed by social status. Even individual photos lumped together into a single image yielded similar effects. 

The following year, researchers, Rodway, Schepman and Lambert conducted a similar experiment, wherein unattractive subjects were photographed with one attractive person. The unattractive people were rated higher together, and the attractive person was rated lower alone.  The results both strengthen the psychology of the cheerleader effect, while issuing an interesting new element: the contrast effect. 

The contrastive effect less broadly intimates that we appear more attractive when surrounded by less attractive people, and less attractive when the contrary occurs. Together these two psychological occurrences come together under what’s been dubbed the assimilation effect.