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Biology 103
2003 Second Paper
On Serendip

How We Measure Up: Height and Psychology

Julia Wise

Your height won't influence what you earn as much as your race or gender, but it may well be significant. In Britain and America, the tallest quarter of the population earns 10% more than the shortest quarter. A white American man averages a 1.8% higher income than his counterpart an inch shorter (1). Economics is not the only area in which taller people win: out of the US's 42 presidents, only eight have been below average height for the time. Most have been significantly taller than the average for white adult males of their eras (2). Tall men are also more likely to be married and have children (3).

Outside of normal height differences, people with growth deficiency are much more aware of the role height plays in their lives. A study done through a growth clinic showed that children with growth deficiency are more likely to have social problems. The problems included lower social competance, increased behavior problems, and low self-esteem. Another study found lower rates of employment and marriage when children with growth deficiency grew up (4).

One theory of why tall people are more successful is that there is stigma attatched to height, and thus short people are seen as easier to dominate (2). Another theory is that evolutionarily, tall people had an advantage in hunting and such and were thus associated with positive traits (5). Perhaps we still retain this association unconciously. The third theory is that taller people have a better-self image, and this increased confidence makes them more successful (2).

A factor that may influence both earnings and height is one's family background. Shorter men tend to come from bigger families with parents who have less education than those of taller men. This shorter height may be a factor of poor childhood nutrition, and parents with less education are more likely to have children who also receive less education and therefore earn less. Family background is not the only influence, though, as shorter men still earn less than taller men from the same background (2).

Effects that appear to stem from one's adult height, though, may have a different cause entirely. Participants in one study were asked to report their heights at ages 7,11, 16, and 23. The height that affected one's adult earnings, it turned out, was not the adult height but the 16-year-old height. (The others did not correspond.) While adult height was found to correspond to earnings in other studies, it seems because of the correlation between adolescent height and adult height (2).

I have observed one phenomenon of height's effect on psychology in my own life. When a group of people have been asked to line up by height, there's always some debate. I usually end up next to someone who I consider shorter than me - but she considers herself taller. One of us is clearly wrong, since we can't both be taller, but it really doesn't matter which of us is right. The interesting part is that both of us perceive ourselves as being taller. My theory is that because height and confidence are linked, how people see themselves affects how they see their height. Since I am about 5'4", on the lower half of the height scale for women, I suspect most girls around my height would like to be taller. When we have to evaluate ourselves, our self-images cause us to overestimate our own heights.

I think, then, that the biggest part of height's role in our lives is not measurable in feet and inches, but in our own minds. The fact that our adolescent heights instead of our adult heights influence our earnings means that employers are not doling out pay based on simple physical appearance, but something that has been with us for years. Our own social skills and attitudes towards ourselves would seem to be what matter here. Maybe it's true - the scrawny kids who got picked on in gym class really were changed by the experience. Maybe they weren't as sure of themselves as the taller kids, and it affected how they did in school later, how well they worked with other people, how much they were valued as workers. Maybe it changed their success in love or presidential elections. It would seem the converse is also true, that one's self-image can change one's perception of height. So in a way, it's in our heads - the important thing is not how tall we are, but how that changes our own mindset.


1) National Longitudinal Surveys, an abstract of a study from The Economist

2) The Effect of Adolescent Experience on Labor Market Outcomes: The Case of Height, an extensive U Penn study

3) Tall Men Do Get the Girl, an article from Psychology Today

4) Concerns about Growth Hormone Experiments in Children

5) The Height of Love

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