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Being taller tends to be socially desirable. But why?

PHOTOGRAPH BY BETTMAN/CORBIS

Diane Cole

for National Geographic

Published February 16, 2014

Your physical height can affect your emotional state of mind, according to a new study.

We already know that language bestows positive value on people of tall stature: We look up to them rather than down. And various studies have found correlations between being taller and earning more.

Now virtual reality is adding to the understanding of the short state of mind. A study conducted at Oxford University and published in December 2013 used avatars to let participants go through the virtual experience of riding a subway at their normal height and then at that height reduced by ten inches.

For the study, 60 women—none with a history of mental illness, but all of whom had recently reported mistrustful thoughts—donned headsets and viewed monitors as they participated in two 3-D virtual-reality trips on the London subway system. They were able to move and interact with other virtual passengers, exchanging glances or looking away from others, for instance.

The virtual train trips journeyed between subway stations, took about six minutes each, and were programmed and animated identically except for one thing: In one ride, the avatar representing the participant was reduced in height by 25 centimeters—a little less than ten inches. That's "approximately the height of a head" in the words of Oxford clinical psychologist and lead researcher Daniel Freeman.

The results: Participants reported that during the ride in which they were made to feel shorter, they felt more vulnerable, more negative about themselves, and had a greater sense of paranoia. "The key to this study was there were no reasons for mistrust," says Freeman. Yet when the participants saw the world from a height that was a head shorter than usual, "they thought people were being more hostile or trying to isolate them."

Short on Confidence

That doesn't suggest that if you're short you're always less trustful or more paranoid, says Freeman. But the findings do reinforce common perceptions about height. "Height seems to affect our sense of social status," he says, and being taller tends to be socially desirable.

"The implication is that greater height can make you more confident in social situations," he says. "All of us can recognize that when we feel worse about ourselves, we can hunch up and stoop and take up less space, but when we feel more confident we feel taller and take up more space."

There may be some reality to the virtual reality, too, as expressed in a comment from a study participant. "I noticed the second time I was shorter. People, even suitcases, were feeling high. I was frustrated to feel like a child again, felt out of place on the tube, because I wasn't an adult." Being shorter, in other words, replicated the sense of vulnerability of a little child, not yet grown into the full height of adulthood.

Perhaps that's not so surprising if you think about how little children feel vis-à-vis taller grown-ups, says Denver clinical psychologist Susan Heitler. While two people of the same height literally will see eye to eye, if one is a foot taller than the other (say, six feet tall vs. five feet tall), one person actually must look up while the other looks down.

That unequal gaze is connected to the association of greater height with greater power. "It's not a perfect correlation," Heitler says, but when she asks depressed patients to close their eyes and imagine their situation, they tend to see themselves as very small in comparison to the seemingly much larger figures in their lives who are overwhelming them.

Tall Hunters Got More Game?

Clearly, our internal landscape is telling us something about how we compare and equate height and status. But how and why did our brains come to incorporate such meanings?

From an evolutionary perspective, "taller is better" may date back to when humans were nomadic hunters, explains Linda A. Jackson, a Michigan State University psychology professor who has studied height stereotypes. According to this view, being taller had reproductive advantages for capturing prey and avoiding predators, which provides a higher likelihood for survival for tall parents and their offspring.

Today's society is radically differently from the societies of the hunter-gatherer era. But height continues to have a small but measurable impact on how others view us, particularly for men.

"Taller men are perceived as having higher status, stronger leadership skills, and as being more occupationally successful than average or shorter males," Jackson wrote in an email interview. Men of average or shorter height also suffer in the realm of social attractiveness, which includes personal adjustment, athletic orientation, and masculinity. Her caveat: "What NONE of these studies establish is that it is HEIGHT per se that is responsible for these benefits or characteristics associated with height (strong leadership skills, self-confidence, professional development)."

Although the evidence that such stereotypes affect women is "weaker," she said, short females, too, are perceived less favorably in the occupational realm, she writes, adding, "The 4'8" manager may need to work harder to be taken seriously."

Little Old Ladies

Moreover, how will such perceptions—and potential biases—in regard to height affect our interactions with one another as the baby boomers begin to shrink, losing inches, growing shorter with age? Will height perceptions have an impact as this large cohort grows older and also grow shorter? Jackson thinks not.

But Timothy Judge, a management professor at the University of Notre Dame who has also studied the impact of height on professional earnings, believes that studies correlating height with professional or personal success "highlight that we are a very appearance-based culture." Moreover, he says, "as we become more and more of a visual and technology-based society, there are reasons to worry that there won't be much to slow down appearance-based judgments." On the other hand, if we only get to know people via computer, perhaps height might become less important.

Judge further worries that this increased emphasis may not bode well for the little old lady—or little old man—who, in addition to being subject to stereotypes about aging may also have to contend with additional negative assumptions about height. "If we live into our 80s, we shave off about two- or two-and-a-half inches on average," says Judge, "and I think that is one of the factors that contributes to ageism."

The presence of such stereotypes makes it all the more important to be aware of and examine any biases we may harbor, says Judge.

But watching our elders shrink in size might also bring out positive, nurturing emotions, says Heitler. "My mother was always taller than me by about an inch until she began shrinking with age," she recounts. Eventually, the height roles were reversed and Heitler became taller than her mother—a transformation that made her feel all the more protective and nurturing.

Learning to adapt and grow in spirit even as we shrink in height—now that would be a reality worth simulating.

37 comments
jim adams
jim adams

This was a nice short study, a valid introduction to the need for a longer  height study.

___________________

Some of the things to play with in future studies are:

Do the same study in reverse -- add 25 cm to 60 people and find out how they deal with it.

Enroll people with a wide variety of actual heights -- and add or subtract the 25 cm from their heights. What's to be learned from this?


Get computerized sensors (cameras) which can be attached to the subject at various heights and feed the info in thru special goggles.


Extend the study so a person lives as a shorter (or taller) person for several days -- long enough to acclimate to the experience. What is their experience?


Ask people interacting with the subjects to look them in the eyes (cameras) when talking, etc. What is the experience?

_____________________________

and a not from a short friend from yesteryear: she often said: "there is no justice for short people"


And, getting off height -- i notice that men are generally stronger than women, so to do the same amount of accomplished physical work, a woman has to make more trips or movements to accomplish the same end. I wonder if this is the same  reason tall people are -- well -- looked up to (ignoring their height) -- they are physically stronger and i've known many who became dominating because of their size and strength (there's exceptions here too)

sue SMITH
sue SMITH

I think most WOMEN don't mind being short. It has always been more of a stigma

for the guys. I am 5ft 2in and very happy with it, except when buying pants.


Dan Roth
Dan Roth

I'm not sure this shows that short people have these perceptions.  It seems, at most, that it shows that people have these perceptions when forced to observe their world from ten inches lower.

Coca Colander
Coca Colander

can you call this a study? what statistical method did this research use in order to formulate a probable answer to the fact? none of the statement can be supported / backed up by numbers.


im sorry but this article does not make sense.

Pablo rera
Pablo rera

Whats the next study? does having brunet hair legitimately make you feel paranoid?. 

Adele Wong
Adele Wong

"NON-TALL" people - a very polite way of putting it. Interesting but not very convincing. I agree that being tall is perceived as being more socially desirable, but i don't have a problem with being SHORT! Though i have thought about going through the Ilizarov apparatus to lengthen my limbs. HAHA I kid. I don't feel small or intimidated by tall people. In fact, I'm going to be good at being short! TO ALL THE SHORT PEOPLE! TIME TO DOMINATE! :D

Pablo rera
Pablo rera

 What a waste of time, short people are born short not turned into little people for a six minute virtual train ride on the tube. The participants of this study were "robbed" of their height to begin with. The other thing, weren't human beings of the past significantly shorter than the humans of today?. I call bologna on this one. 

Pablo rera
Pablo rera

What a waste of time, short people are born short not turned into little people for a six minute virtual train ride on the tube. The participants of this study were "robbed" of their height to begin with. The other thing, weren't human beings of the past significantly shorter than the humans of today?. I call bologna on this one. 

Maria Kay
Maria Kay

Interesting study but not useful.In my opinion studying 60 participants isn’t a good representative of the vast majority of ‘short people’...

First, it would be useful if they included heights of the participants their age etc. also, why didn’t they include men… or is it only women who feel vulnerable and paranoid for being short?

An 18 year old woman is unlikely to think the same as a woman in her 30s or 60s (There’s a lot to say here about psychosocial development and mental wellbeing)

Knowing the height of each participant is useful particularly if one is tall (e.g 6’) and assumes the height of say 5’  common sense suggests there will be negative feelings and other related emotions. I’m not sure delivery through an avatar gives good empirical information, perhaps a real life observation would be better.

Second, I’m confused by the fact women with ‘mistrustful thoughts’ were selected… mistrust and the like are elements of personality disorder (probably schizotypal) and paranoia …which is mental health… I suspect that perhaps since these women were not clinically diagnosed or seeking some form of support could explain why the study could state – “none with a history mental health”… in a controlled environment with specific type of participants, is it no wonder these women stated they felt ‘vulnerable’, ‘negative about themselves’ and ‘paranoid’? I wonder what the outcome of the study would be if a cross-section were picked and reflective of society.


...some cultures have relatively short people, they don't seem to feel traumatised by it!...perhaps negative emotions may vary according to the environment... just some thoughts

Melinda Mills
Melinda Mills

Most of the short people I know, masculine or feminine, are very successful. In elementary school I met a girl who was very bright in my opinion; she was always shining in class although she was from a very poor background.  She became a very successful banker; retired and then was rehired.  She achieved many of her goals early but is still working.  I thought she had gone to one of the best grammar schools when she left elementary school but on speaking to her some time ago, she reminded me that it was an obscure private secondary school which surprised me.  I had met her on the job making appointments with my boss, dealing and wheeling with the big guns.  I am now retired but she is still in demand.  I had many opportunities, went to one of the best grammar schools but I am now retired and cannot find a suitable part-time opportunity.  Just to show that short people can reach their goals early and continue to do so. There are about three other short men I know who had no problem at all achieving their goals from an early age - spiritually, materially and otherwise.


Leon Lee Gold
Leon Lee Gold

Short people achieve their goals easier than most tall people!*

Sarah W.
Sarah W.

University of Oxford? Be ashamed. 

The study takes one very specific situation that is likely to be uncomfortable for shorter people (who likes being armpit height!) and shrinks people from their normal comfort level. This can not be generalised to society! 
Flip it the other way. Imagine the avatar study was conducted on a boat, where being a head shorter means you are less likely to be hit in the head by the boom (long piece of metal at the bottom of a sail). Shorter people are perhaps more likely to feel safe, confident, in control are are able to focus on other tasks. So from that, it means small people are confident in every situation and are evolutionarily advanced because they can fit in small spaces and hide from predators better?

Exactly what you've done in this article. Speculative rubbish, with the potential to have been really interesting. 

Y. Tenzin
Y. Tenzin

I'm appalled at the idiocy of this article and of the conclusions drawn by the experiment. The only thing it showed, if anything, is that (paranoia-prone) people feel paranoid when suddenly forced to adopt a much different perspective than the one they are used to - in this case by giving them a much shorter height. 


This has nothing to do with proving that short people are disadvantaged. It only proves that people feel emotionally destabilised when their body perception, which they use to navigate the world and interact with it, is changed abruptly. My feeling is that the researchers would have reached similar conclusions if the participants in the experiment had been made significantly taller. 


Since this is more anecdotal than scientific, I'll thrown in my experience too. Personally, I'm 5 feet 1inch tall and live in Switzerland. I've also spent a great deal of my life with people from Northern Europe. So I know a thing or two about being a very short person living among very tall people. 


Has my diminutive stature ever made me feel inferior? Or interfered with a successful job interview or hindered my career or happiness? Brace yourselves... for the answer is - guess what - NO. 


In fact, I've always been happy with my small stature. It proved an advantage in the sports I enjoy, it ensures comfort when travelling (no such a thing as feeling cramped in airseats), and I've never had to worry about a blanket not covering my feet. Ha Ha.


Then again, I am a woman, maybe men do feel more conscious about their physical size. Also, academically-wise I was a precious child. This is relevant in the sense that from a young age I got used to dealing with people who were much bigger and older than me.  But since our exchanges where on intellectual grounds, size, age, gender or colour never meant much to me as basis for earning respect. And the older I get, the more grateful I am for this perspective.


Back to the actual study, the question is... was this experiment done with genuine desire to understand our world better means of applying the scientific method... or merely to manipulate facts and reinforce a dubious stereotype? Honestly, shame on you, for calling yourselves scientists. What a waste of time and resources. 

Marlon Rueda
Marlon Rueda

I am just 151cm in height. It is a daily struggle for me being short. I always find myself doing work twice as much as my counterpart who are a lot taller than me just to prove my worthiness. When someone tries to ask a favor to somebody of the same height as her/him it starts with "Pass me the"   "Do the", straight forward,  but when it comes to me, most of the time or at least for some period of time when they finally  noticed I am just as good as they are, it's "Do you think you can?" At one point during a drinking session with a peer of mine admitted he felt like working with a kid with me. In relationships, I don't remember how many times I was dumped because I am short. Before I started working, I always look up to those tall people because somehow, as much as I don't admit it they got better things,. Rarely we see a short guy on tv and in the movies, if ever they're there. They're doing the comical characters. Nothing important. By the time I landed a job, that's  when I started hating them because of the aforementioned above. .....But then, I realized, they didn't ask to be  born taller, neither I asked being born shorter. As I grow older, It started to not matter to me. Instead, I concentrated on things which are valuable to me. My height will never define me again. 

I learned  to adapt and grow in spirit 

Bruce Almighty
Bruce Almighty

I didn't bother reading all of it as it seemed quite a tedious and misguided article. 

First of all presumably participants were of various heights. Duh! 

Second of all, this so-called study is obviously from the perspective of people that are made to feel that they are now shorter than they actually are and not from people that are statistically shorter. A very crucial point. 

I mean, I do not feel inferior, suppressed, paranoid etc. I am 177 cm. There are plenty of people taller than me.

Now does this mean that if someone is 6.1" which is taller than most, Will consistently feel all these negative traits mentioned in the article if he comes into contact with people that are 6.5"?? 

Lastly, it is quite obvious that anyone that has less than the average anything would feel somewhat inadequate given A judgemental society. 

Now this is an example of thoroughly wasteful expense for so-called research. 



Scott Henrie
Scott Henrie

Talk people should earn more because they often have back problems because everything is made for average or short people! Also because they can get more work done because they can actually reach stuff ;)
 No time wasted on having to get a ladder! So more productivity!


They also forgot to mention that short people are always being made fun of for being short ;) So put on some high heels girls, and feel more confident!

Nitish Abhishek
Nitish Abhishek

Pathetic Article Waste of time. who provide fund to these people.

Jagan KMR
Jagan KMR

is this study also observed changes when short people are made tall?

Vicay Sarabia
Vicay Sarabia

i definitely disagree with this study.... 1st of all the subjects they used are forner tall people shrinked virtually.... these people are used to be tall all their life and that their state of mind has had been fixed them being tall.... they should have used legitimate small subjects and asked them how do they perceive the world.... being tall doesn't automatically mean you're confident....how do you expect former tall people to think like small ones if in reality they are not.... they don't have legitimate experiences as a small person to actually say that is how small people will react to that.... a one sided study.... poorly executed....

Dave Simmons
Dave Simmons

How about those of us who are tall, and have to live in a world built for shorter people. Clothes and shoes can be very hard, and expensive, to find. The top of my head almost always has scabs from hitting doorways. (Doors are NOT all the same height.)


Then there are the questions, like, "How's the weather up there?".


Big Dave


btw, the "Big Dave" appellation was given to me by shorter people, some of whom were also called "Dave". It's sometimes useful in identifying myself in a group, as opposed to that very common name "Dave".

Rose Deliso
Rose Deliso

How do these articles always find me?

Elise Villemaire
Elise Villemaire

There are many ways to look at any condition and this study is focused on a side issue. I fear this was studied by tall scientists, who think from their perspective and might not innately understand the issue.

Shortness means that those around you are taller. Not only does one have to look up to meet their eyes, but one is blocked from seeing beyond them. How does one know if they are safe? Paranoia comes from being blinded to future potential dangers even more than having to look up to meet another's eyes.

This explains the prehistoric reproductive success of taller individuals. If you are hunting or looking out for danger, being able to see over is an excellent tool for survival. Also, in the simulated trip through a crowded train, being able to see beyond the taller people gives a sense of safety.

The same issue exists for us all on the roads. Being able to see what's ahead clearly increases your survival rate! Being in a taller vehicle gives both the power of sight and planning time for future dangers, especially if you can see the taillights 3 or 4 cars ahead.

A J
A J

@Maria Kay  It isn't meant to be representative of short people; it's meant to be representative of how random people perceive the world differently when they experience being short.


What you are basically saying is this study is useless because it didn't address every single possible variable that could be conceived of (and, methodologically, many of your comments would require a different kind of study). No study addresses everything. Research is incremental.


This is a proof of concept stage, that one slight difference in VR simulations can induce real perceptions of difference in people. That is HUGE.

Kuba Jean
Kuba Jean

@Maria Kay  clearly no one has patted you on the head...when you are an adult! However it is hard to understand that paranoia...


Abdul Basit
Abdul Basit

@Melinda Mills Its not a general purpose formula. Short-height people can also be failure in life. My point is either short-height person successful or failed, but he/she has a complex and a paranoid person.

N. Ten
N. Ten

@Melinda Mills

Anecdotes are not data. Data show shorter people are discriminated against in school, in jobs and even by juries on the same or greater order than race

Sean Phillips
Sean Phillips

@Jagan KMR  I was wondering about that too. Based what was published, this study seems very one-sided.

Chris Hugh
Chris Hugh

Elise, day you made the Internet worthwhile. Your conclusions make so much more sense than the drivel in this article. Thank you. Without your comment, reading this article would have been a waste of time.

Anjan Banerjee
Anjan Banerjee

@Scott Henrie @Jagan KMR Just like not everyone is endowed with the 'privilege' of body height, not everyone has the privilege of having got an English education good enough for one to be able to use correct grammar & spelling on an ongoing basis on daily life. That should not stop one from attempting to participate in a discussion by asking questions as long as the meaning of the question or view is reasonably clear.

Ger T
Ger T

@Scott Henrie please stop saying mean things to people, we are just giving our opinion.

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