Housefull Economics

Who’s That Girl?

Our weekly explainer on economics using lessons from popular culture. In Installment 30, Aishwarya Rai encounters the Cheerleader Effect.

This is January, people are getting married all around me, so I’m going to share a wedding video. But, as always, there’s economics in this. The video above, of ‘Balle Balle’ from the film Bride and Prejudice, has as many as four people demonstrating a cognitive bias. Aishwarya Rai, Martin Henderson, Namrata Shirodkar and Naveen Andrews all fall for the Cheerleader Effect.

The Cheerleader Effect (or the Group Attractiveness Effect) is defined as a “cognitive bias which causes people to think individuals are more attractive when they are in a group.” The term was coined by the renowned behavioural economist Professor Barnabas Stinson of How I Met Your Mother fame. In a famous clip, embedded at the end of this piece, he explained to a group of students:

The Cheerleader Effect is when a group of women seems hot, but only as a group. Just like with cheerleaders: they seem hot, but take each one of them individually — sled dogs!

This isn’t just the idle musing of a television scriptwriter objectifying women. A study by Drew Walker and Edward Vul, published in 2013, backed this up. Walker and Vul carried out five experiments that all confirmed the Cheerleader Effect, and tried to explain it:

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. We tested this hypothesis in five experiments in which subjects rated the attractiveness of faces presented either alone or in a group with the same gender. Our results were consistent with the cheerleader effect.

This makes sense, as we know that we are attracted to average faces. One evolutionary explanation for this: “During sexual selection, animals preferentially seek mates with a minimum of unusual or mutant features, including functionality, appearance and behavior.” The first modern study to confirm this was carried out by Judith Langlois and Lori Roggman — but we’re digressing here, as this may just be one factor in the Cheerleader Effect.

Another study in 2015 confirmed the Cheerleader Effect, but hey, my advice to researchers would be to study something else now — Bollywood has sorted this one out. Time after time, the hero and heroine in a Bollywood film fall in love when they see the other person in a group, either in college or on the street or at a wedding. And indeed, weddings are awesome places to find real-life romance because a) all the single people there are primed for it, b) prospective targets/suitors are somewhat vetted by virtue of being invited to the wedding and c) the Cheerleader Effect. Unless it’s your own wedding, in which case, heh.

Now, what have you learnt from this article? Have you changed your Tinder profile pic to a group photo yet?

About the author

Amit Varma

Amit Varma is a writer based in Mumbai. A journalist for a decade-and-a-half, he won the Bastiat Prize for Journalism in 2007 and 2015. He writes the blog India Uncut, and hosts the podcast, The Seen and the Unseen. He is the editor of Pragati.