Trying to figure out what makes a person attractive has been a hot topic in the scientific community: Do pheromones draw us to others, or face shape, or certain mannerisms? Researchers from several institutions continue the quest with their most recent question — are male faces with feminine fatures considered attractive?

Scientists from the University of Otago, Warwick Business School, and the University of California, San Diego set out to examine the “Johnny Depp Effect,” which involves women tending to prefer men with feminine faces. Their research revealed that this effect holds water in some situations, but not all.

Study participants were asked to rate the attractiveness of gender-blended face morphs in a few scenarios. The first experiment involved participants being asked to classify the faces as male or female prior to rating their level of attractiveness. The gender blends were disliked only when they were first categorized by gender, despite an overall preference by the participants for more feminine features.

This effect may be the result of “processing fluency,” according to study co-author Professor Jamin Halberstadt. Processing fluency is the level of ease with which one can perceive, process, and categorize something. Piotr Winkielman, from USCD and the Warwick School of Business, added that “mental effort can negatively color our initial impressions, even for things that are objectively pretty.”

“The idea we tested is that the mental effort of having to assign a gender to an ambiguous face has a flow-on effect of negatively influencing how we feel about that face,” Halberstadt explained in a statement.

The second part of the experiment involved participants categorizing the gender-ambiguous faces by ethnicity rather than gender. These participants did not subsequently judge the gender-bending morphs as less appealing. Halberstadt said this difference may suggest a general aversion to facial ambiguity is not responsible for participants’ responses.

“It has previously been suggested that a woman’s preference in male faces vary due to hormonal influences,” Halberstadt explained.

Sometimes, a female looks for signs of a “nice dad” who will prove a good provider, but other times, more highly masculine “bad boy” traits will get the edge, because they may signal “better” genes. However, these changes in preference may instead be explained through cognitive process, as suggested by the new study.

“The more feminine faces are generally preferred, unless the context forces the viewer to put the face into rigid gender boxes,” Winkielman added.

Source: Owen H, Halberstadt J, Carr E, Winkielman P. Johnny Depp, reconsidered: How Category-Relative Processing Fluency Determines the Appeal of Gender Ambiguity. PLOS One. 2016.