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.