Say you just walked into a club on a Saturday night. Say you’re hoping you won’t leave alone. Odds are pretty good you’re not the only person there who’s thinking along those lines. That means you agonized at least a little before you left the house: What should you wear? How do you look? Do you do your hair this way (ugh, no) or that (ack, even worse)? Perhaps most important: do you fly solo or bring some chums? And if you do come with friends, who should they be?
The biggest problem with assembling a singles posse for a night out is—let’s be honest—we ain’t all lookers. If you’re the one who’s always been politely described as, um, really funny or a good dancer, do you want to be seen with your stunner of a friend? And if you’re the stunner, does it help or hurt to show up in the company of your not-quite eye candy besties?
The answer, according to a new study just published in Psychological Science, is that whenever possible, bring your gang with you. Any one person seen in a group just seems better looking than when viewed alone. The reason: the human eye averages things out, and when it comes to faces, average is usually good.
It’s no secret that our innate definition of beauty is defined by a very clear set of physical norms. Facial analysis studies show that symmetry is almost always perceived as prettier than asymmetry and the most beautiful faces are the ones on which the eyes are no more or less than a certain distance apart, and the forehead, chin, cheeks and other features take up no more than a certain share of the whole. It’s the reason that models may be gorgeous but can prove awfully difficult to tell apart.
“Perhaps it’s like Tolstoy’s families,” says psychological scientist Drew Walker of the University of California, San Diego, in a statement that accompanied the release of the study. “Beautiful people are all alike, but every unattractive person is unattractive in their own way.”
To test how that plays out in a group setting, Walker and his UCSD collaborator, psychological scientist Edward Vul, recruited 130 undergraduate students and showed them pictures of 100 different men and women. Sometimes the subjects in the pictures were shown as part of a three-person group; other times they were cropped out to show just one face at a time. Still other times, the faces were taken out of context and arranged on a simple grid of either four, nine or 16 faces.
Consistently, the researchers found, the solo shots were perceived as less attractive than the faces viewed in a group—whether in a real setting or on the grid. This was true regardless of the gender of the subjects, and regardless of whether they would broadly be described as conforming to most definitions of attractiveness or unattractiveness. Both the gorgeous and the non-gorgeous improved by being with other people.
Walker and Vul don’t pretend that the difference in perceived prettiness is big. Being part of a posse elevated the average subject from the 49th percentile to just the 51st. But that at least got them across the beauty equator, and average score by definition means that some people will benefit more. Either way, jokes Vul, “some of us need all the help we can get.”
The explanation for the phenomenon, they believe, is the averaging effect and how it works. A big nose in the company of a small nose does not look bigger still; rather, both noses move closer to the mean. “Individuals with complementary features—one person with narrow eyes and one person with wide eyes—would enjoy a greater boost in perceived attractiveness when seen together, as compared to groups comprised of individuals who have similar features,” Walker and Vul write.
None of this means that you should choose your wing-people based on how they look. The singles bar itself is already too much of a beauty contest. And none of it, more importantly, detracts from the trademark beauty to be found in idiosyncrasy. Julia Roberts dazzles precisely because her smile is not like everyone else’s. Penelope Cruz with a button nose would still be beautiful but not unforgettable. And while Jennifer Gray continued to dazzle on her recent turn on Dancing With the Stars, it was the Dirty Dancing Jennifer—with her pre-surgical, Dirty Dancing nose—who launched a thousand ships. Average is beautiful, but only till it’s not—something that all of us who could use a little help might do well to remember.