The term “cheerleader effect” was coined in 2008 by Barney Stinson, a character played by Neil Patrick Harris on the hit television series “How I Met Your Mother.”
This cognitive bias emerged from a scene that begins with the main cast sitting at the bar of their local pub where Ted (Josh Radnor) points out a group of “hot” women sitting on the other side of the establishment.
Barney, always the contrarian, points out that Ted has been fooled and states the following:
“You have just become victims of the cheerleader effect. Glad you asked! 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 individually… sled dogs!”
Thanks to the efforts of University of California, San Diego researchers Drew Walker and Edward Vul we know that the cheerleader effect is backed by good science too.
Today’s round of Road to the Kentucky Derby prep races gave us a perfect example.
Formerly bulletproof Smokey Image (3-1) came up completely empty in the Grade II San Felipe Stakes after starting his career with six easy wins — the last three of which came against California-breds. By Southern Image, Smokey’s Image went wire to wire to score by 8-1/2 lengths in the California Cup Derby, which was also contested at Santa Anita and at the same distance as the San Felipe.
How does this apply to the cheerleader effect?
Well, the state-bred breeding program in California is not designed to produce the types of horses that do well in the Kentucky Derby and the races that precede it.
The best horses in the world are bred in Kentucky.
And if quality wasn’t enough, Kentucky has quantity too. In 2015, there were 17,265 mares bred in the Kentucky versus 2,662 in California. It’s much easier to look like a world-class horse against a pool of 2,662 competitors than it is a group of 17,265.
Of course, this doesn’t mean a truly special horse can’t arise from the Golden State — California Chrome made that very clear.
However, the Kentucky Derby winner is an anomaly. “Chrome” is the exception and not the rule.
Handicappers would be well advised to consider the nature of the competition prospective selections have faced. While just one of many factors, it’s always worth considering whether a horse has been battle tested or if he’s just been made to look good by considerably weaker foes; in other words, made to look better by the cheerleader effect.
Winning stylishly isn’t enough. It’s not enough for a horse to just look good in the way it wins a race by many lengths, etc. Horses have to look good and do it while beating other good horses to be what former Arizona Cardinals coach Dennis Green once said, “who we thought they were.”
Check back next week for an explanation of the hot-hand fallacy.