One of Barney Stinson’s ridiculous dating theories from the TV show How I Met Your Mother is actually right.
The idea from season four episode seven is a theory that he calls the “cheerleader effect” — a group of women look more attractive when in a group than they do when seen individually — is now actually backed up by scientific research.
A study published on Oct. 25 in Psychological Science found that people were rated as more attractive when they were part of a group.
Barney explains the idea really well in the episode:
“The cheerleader effect is when a group of women seems hot, but only as a group,” Barney explains. “Just like with cheerleaders. They seem hot, but take each one individually: Sled dogs.”
The real difference is not that striking — the researchers found that people only look about two percentile points more attractive when they are part of a group. But the results show that the cheerleader effect is real. It works for groups of men too, not just women.
Why do we look more attractive in a group?
When someone is looking at a group of people, that person’s brain tends to “average out” the facial features of everyone in the group, making all group member’s faces look more average than they would on their own.
Calling someone average-looking might not sound like a compliment. But Drew Walker, study researcher from the University of California, San Diego, explained in a press release that “average faces are more attractive, likely due to the averaging out of unattractive idiosyncracies.”
The study included 130 participants. They were shown pictures of 300 different people and rated the attractiveness of each person twice — once from a group picture with two other people of the same gender in it, and once from a cropped picture showing only one person. The participants rated the person more attractive in the group shot than when they looked at the person pictured alone.
You can see the scale used to rate the level of attractiveness in the image below:
You can see that the rating from the group picture is slightly higher than the rating from the individual picture.
The researchers conclude in their results: “Thus, having a few wingmen — or wing-women — may indeed be a good dating strategy, particularly if their facial features complement, and average out, one’s unattractive idiosyncrasies.”
It turns out that people don’t even need to be in an actual group to look more attractive. People in collages of individual photos were also rated as more attractive than a photo by itself. Standing in a crowd of strangers could have a similar effect as standing and chatting with friends.