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"Johnny Depp effect" under the microscope: when pretty faces seem ugly

24.02.2016 Society, Recommended

Sample images used in the study. On the left - face with typically male features, on the right - face with female features. © 2016 Owen et al., source: PLOS One

Large eyes, small jaw, raised arched eyebrows - these feminine facial features make also male faces appear more attractive. But not always. In his research, psychologist Piotr Winkielman had a closer look at the "Johnny Depp effect".

"It is a well-known phenomenon in psychology that women's faces have features associated with attractiveness. Ladies have rounder faces and larger eyes in proportion to the whole face - they look more like children. Male faces have more features associated with anger - for example prominent and lowered eyebrows "- said in an interview with PAP Piotr Winkielman from the University of California at San Diego and the University of Social Sciences and Humanities.


This may seem counter-intuitive, but male faces with feminine features are also considered more attractive than typically male faces. In psychology, this effect became known as the "Johnny Depp effect". Not without reason the faces of celebrities such as Leonardo di Caprio, Orlando Bloom, Justin Timberlake and Justin Bieber are considered attractive.


"In psychology, we are interested in the basics of first impressions. Until now, research has focused on the facial features that make us attractive or trustworthy. And we show that such an assessment is not so simple. Reactions to the face are also determined by how easy it is to mentally process this face. This is not just a matter of features, but also the context" - said Dr. Winkielman.


In his research program, the psychologist examines responses to conflict and cognitive effort, which are caused by stimuli, which are inconsistent or fit into multiple categories. Such a conflict can occur, for example, when we have to decide whether an orange object is yellow or rather red. Cognitive effort associated with the categorization of an object matching several labels is considerable and generally unpleasant. And that can change our assessment of this object. Dr. Winkielman studied the effect on the example of human face. The results were published in February in PLOS (http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0146328)


The study used images obtained by morphing female and male faces, and thus mixing the features of these images. The subjects assessed faces with varying levels of female and male features (from zero to one hundred percent of female features). When faces were shown randomly to the respondents without any no further questions, asking them to rate the attractiveness, regularity was clear. The more female features the face had, the more attractive it was considered, regardless of whether the face was assessed by women or men.


Assessment was different, however when before answering the question about the attractiveness of the image, respondents were asked to quickly guess the gender of the person. In this scenario, the least attractive faces were the ones in the middle of the scale - those in which male and female feature were present to a similar extent, and it was difficult to classify their gender. "Cognitive load, according to our theory, translates into attractiveness" - commented the psychologist.


"In the first impression situation, people react negatively to cognitive load. We are cognitively lazy. We appreciate the ease of thinking. If something requires too much thinking, the first reaction is negative. And that translates into assessing the attractiveness. In short: >>I do not like you because I do not know how to categorize you<<" - explained the researcher.


"Each of us can have something difficult to categorize - be it sex, language, accent, emotions, race or age. When it comes to first impressions, categorizing difficulty translates into reactions to faces" - said Winkielman.


PAP - Science and Scholarship in Poland, Ludwika Tomala


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epa00595633 (FILES)  US actor Johnny Depp poses for photos during a news conference in Venice 04 September 2004. Depp received a Golden Globe nomination as best actor in a musical or comedy motion picture for his role in the film 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory', as nominations were announced at a news conference in Beverly Hills 13 December 2005.  EPA/CLAUDIO ONORATIDostawca: PAP/EPA.


Sample images used in the study. On the left - face with typically male features, on the right - face with female features. © 2016 Owen et al., source: PLOS One

Sample images used in the study. Researchers uses morphing of faces with masculine and feminine features, as well as Asian and Caucasian facial features. © 2016 Owen et al., Source: PLOS One

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