Life can be tough for kids whose ears stick out, and they may suffer from low self-esteem due to their appearance. But now, a new study shows that although people's eyes are naturally drawn to a child's ears if they protrude more than usual, the trait does not carry a social stigma.
In the study, people rated the personalities of kids with protruding ears no differently than those of kids without protruding ears. In fact, they even tended to rate the kids whose ears protruded the most as being the most intelligent and likable.
The findings show that "protruding ears catch the eye, but not necessarily the imagination in a negative way," said Dr. Ralph Litschel, the lead author of the study.
For some kids in the study, "protruding ears may have added to their cuteness," said Litschel, an ear, nose and throat specialist and facial plastic surgeon at Cantonal Hospital St. Gallen in Switzerland.
In the study, the researchers took photos of 20 children, ages 5 to 19, who were considering undergoing otoplasty, a surgical procedure that reduces the protrusion of the ears. They also made a Photoshopped version of each image, altering the ears to show how the kids would look after the surgery. The researchers showed the images to 20 observers, using an eye-tracking device to measure exactly how long the observers spent looking at each part of the children's faces, and also asked the observers to make guesses about the kids' personalities based on the images.
The results showed that the observers spent about 7 seconds looking at each face, and looked at the ears for about 10 percent of that time for the images where the ears were protruding, compared with only 6 percent of the time for the Photoshopped images.
The researchers expected to find that people looked longer at protruding ears because people are universally attracted to facial features that are novel, or ones that look different from most other faces, according to the study, published Thursday (March 19) in the journal JAMA Facial Plastic Surgery. [10 Scientific Tips for Raising Happy Kids]
It's thought that people focus on distinctive facial features because they help us recognize other people, Litschel said. Researchers estimate that about 5 percent of people have protruding ears, according to the study.
But the researchers were surprised to find that the observers held no negative perceptions about the personality traits of children with protruding ears, Litschel said. The finding shows that protruding ears may not carry a social stigma, as some researchers had previously thought. In general, attractiveness is known to strongly influence the perception of a person's personality, the researchers said. In other words, when someone is rated as smart or highly likable, they're also seen as attractive.
The kids in the study "all looked cute and smart in their own way," Litschel said.
It is unclear why it has been thought that protruding ears lead to a biased perception of people, Litschel told Live Science. The roots may lie in ideas proposed in 1876 by Cesare Lombroso, an Italian criminologist and physician who thought that criminals could be identified by features that were considered congenital defects at the time, like protruding ears. Lombroso's ideas became popular, Litschel said.
"Up to today, popular comic cartoons with prominent ears represent the less-intelligent, immature, oddball character, like Shrek," he said.
People of different cultures may hold differing ideas about atypical facial features, Litschel noted. For example, in Asian countries, protruding ears or especially big ears are desirable, and a sign of good fortune, he added.
But regardless of whether there's a stigma, it can be rough out there for kids with protruding ears. Children pay more attention than adults do to even small differences in appearance between themselves and others, the researchers said in their study.
Bullying is one of the main reasons that parents seek corrective surgery for their kids, Litschel said. Otoplasty is not a trivial operation, but in general, it causes little discomfort and carries a very low risk of severe complications, he said.
Live Science newsletter
Stay up to date on the latest science news by signing up for our Essentials newsletter.