Group dating is trendy — because it works. Consider the popularity of The Bachelor or the surge in popularity of apps like Grouper or Tinder Social. Group dating seems weird, but the blunt truth is that it works.
Madeline Fugere, a professor of social psychology at Eastern Connecticut State University and author of The Social Psychology of Attraction and Romantic Relationships says that group dating is popular because of its inherent advantages, offering a more casual and safer environment for people to meet. After all, it’s easier to flirt with a stranger when you know you have the option to bail with your friends.
But personality takes a backseat to attractiveness when judging how well a group date will go — especially for men and for people less physically attractive than other members of a group. In other words, only one thing is necessary for a group date to succeed: Your friends need to be fine as hell.
“For men, just being seen with one or more attractive women can make men appear more attractive,” Fugere tells Inverse. “For less attractive individuals, if you are with a group of friends who are more attractive than you, you can take advantage of the ‘assimilation effect’ which basically shows that you become associated with the more attractive group and tend to be perceived as more attractive yourself.”
This effect goes by a different, more eye-roll inducing, name in a 2013 study in Psychological Science. In this paper, researchers Drew Walker and Edward Vul explain that people come off as more attractive when in groups than alone because of the “cheerleader effect.” In a five-experiment study, Walker and Vul asked a group of subjects to rate the attractiveness of people in a variety of photographs — some of the photographs pictured people alone, some in groups, and others in collaged photos of people alone made to look like a group. Men and women both overwhelmingly reported that people in groups were more attractive than the people photographed alone.
Walker and Vul write that the cheerleader effect emerges from an “interplay of three cognitive phenomena.” First, the brain’s visual system creates an ensemble vision of the faces it’s looking at. From here, they think the brain biases an ensemble average made up of individual members; this ensemble average is deemed attractive. “Individual faces will seem more attractive when present in a group,” they write, “because they will appear more similar to the average group face, which is more attractive than the group member’s individual faces.”
Similar results were found by a team of Dutch scientists in a 2015 paper published the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Here the “cheerleader effect” is referred to as the “so-called group attractiveness effect” but they’re pretty much the same thing: People are seen as more attractive within the context of an attractive group. Selective attention to attractive people, the researchers argue, elevates the entire group — one hot friend skews the judgment of the entire crew.
“Based on the average rule, one would expect the evaluation of a group’s physical attractiveness to be based on the average attractiveness of its members,” they write. “In our studies, however, people judge the physical attractiveness of a group and we observe that they find the group more attractive than the average of its members.”
This team also find what Fugere mentioned: Women, more than men, have the power to instigate selective attention. They found that both men and women paid more attention to attractive women and overestimated how many women they found attractive in the group because of that. Women also gave more attention to hot men in groups — but identifying one person as attractive didn’t bias their view of the entire gang.
What does this really mean for the future of dating? From an analytical standpoint, it appears that group dating is an advantageous way to get out there — especially if the group you’ll be rolling with is a hot one.