Sam Newsome

Sam Newsome
"The potential for the saxophone is unlimited." - Steve Lacy

Friday, May 1, 2015

The Cheerleader Effect: You're as Good as the Company as you Keep

The “cheerleader effect” is a phenomenon in which people seem more attractive when they are in a group than when they are alone.

According to many studies, this is because when we look at a group of people, our brains average out their facial features to an average group face. Consequently, everyone wins.  The person who has conventionally attractive features will average out the features of person who is less conventionally attractive. You might call it cosmetic socialism. 

There have been numerous experiments conducted where both male and female pictures were shown as individuals and in groups. And the people tended rate pictures higher when shown in a group.

Not to worry, this piece is not a dating post with advice on “10 Ways to Lure a Mate.” But I did want to show how the cheerleader effect is applicable to musical situations.

Hear me out.

We mentioned that one of the things that the brain does when it sees a group is that it averages out their faces. Well the brain does a similar thing aurally. If you were to listen to a saxophonist with moderate skill sets play alone, he or she would probably sound mediocre, at best. However, if you were to put this same sax player in the context of a band—especially a good band-- you’ll likely rate their abilities much higher. 

Let’s say this sax player isn’t very strong harmonically, but the piano player is. You’d be more forgiving of their inability to consistently improvise on chord changes if there was someone else taking up the slack in that area. Or let’s say this person has only an average understanding of rhythm, but the drummer’s rhythm is exceptional. Again, you’d be a little more forgiving. In fact, many of the dating sites say that you’re profile picture will be looked at more favorably if you include others in the photo whose facial features either complement yours, or compensate for yours.

I remember when I was in high school, the only time my mother thought that I sounded good was when she heard me in the context of the school band. She would usually respond with statements of surprise such as, “Sammy, I didn’t know you could blow like that.” Mind you, nothing on my end really changed. However, how I was perceived did.

I realize that it’s not that simple. In fact, one of the factors that scientists seem to overlook in analyzing the cheerleader effect is group chemistry.  When there is a collective energy, it also heightens the favorable impression of each individual who is an active participant of that collective exchange.

As musicians, this is one of the important reasons why we should always surround ourselves with not only good musicians, but musicians who help present us in the kind of light we’d like to be presented in. And this not only applies to bandleaders, but to sidemen as well. You’re as good as the company that you keep. Being selective is difficult, especially when you have few opportunities to begin with. However, time has proven that it inevitably puts you in a much better position.

There are quite of few great jazz musicians whom I feel have hurt their careers because they’ll play with anybody, regardless of level and status, as long as “the money is correct.” Or even worse, they have a history of hiring less competent players because they’re cheaper. 

I’m not here to pass judgment. We’re all just trying to play and make a little money along the way. I get that. But keeping unflattering company eventually lowers the impression of how people perceive you musically, personally, and status wise. And eventually hurts you financially.

I’ve been in numerous situations where someone heard me playing with a group of musicians who were inexperienced, and their reception afterwards would be lukewarm at best. They would give me the routine, “Yeah man, I heard you.” Or if it were really bad, they wouldn’t even mention the music. They would start asking me about my equipment. “Hey, what kind of mouthpiece do you play on?”

Then the next day they would hear me play with some more advanced players and it would be as though I had grown by leaps and bounds. Why? Because of the company I kept. Again, I understand this is an oversimplification. Better players can bring a higher level of performance out of you. So it’s not just that the first group mentioned played at lower level, the good players made me play at a higher level, which, consequently, changed the listener’s impression.

So the moral of the story is this: The next time you go out and want people to perceive you as attractive, invite three or four good-looking friends to be in your posse. And the next time you book a gig and you want to be perceived as a really good player, hire really good players.

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