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Is Height Advantage a Tall Tale?

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I’ve always known that being tall has its advantages. It’s hard not to know when you’re reminded of it your whole life—watching the back of someone’s head at concerts, being relegated to the front row of school pictures, never owning a pair of pants that didn’t need hemming, and so forth. Now I find out that those who tower over us not only get better views and have an easier time shopping, but they might even be paid more and live longer, too! It makes me wonder just how advantageous being tall is in our society and if those of us who are below average in height always get the short end of the stick.


More Money and Assertiveness by the Inch
In 1915, a survey was done that suggested a correlation between success and height. Researchers found that, among the polled, those in management positions tended to be taller than those below them. Since then, countless studies have pointed out society’s preference for the tall. A study conducted by researchers from the University of Florida and the University of North Carolina and published in the Journal of Applied Psychology revealed that in the U.S., a six-foot-tall man makes an average of $790 more per year than his shorter peers do. The researchers found that the biggest salary differences among short and tall people occurred in industries requiring social interaction, particularly in management and retail.


But whether the supposed greater outward confidence is a result of being tall or is simply perceived by outsiders on account of their height is a matter of opinion. In a radio interview, Arianne Cohen, author of The Tall Book: A Celebration of Life from on High, postulates that tall children develop natural leadership skills because they’re used to their peers treating them as if they’re older. According to the book Body Language for Dummies, the fact that people literally look up to them is what instills the self-esteem boost necessary for success.


When it comes to tall women, their height supposedly makes them more competitive and goal-driven. A paper published in a 2005 edition of Personality and Individual Differences argues that tall women are more career-oriented and have less of a drive to have babies and start a family than shorter women. The researchers involved in the study theorize that increased testosterone levels might play a part, as a previous test they performed showed a correlation between higher levels of testosterone and less of a maternal push.


Height Preference Has Historical Ties
The Journal of Applied Psychology study listed height as more of a determining factor for salary than even age or gender. In fact, when it comes to gender, height is really only a factor for men. The professors believe that short women don’t experience salary discrepancies on the same level as men do. The reason for the male bias could be evolutionary. Back in our caveman days, taller men signified good health. This doesn’t necessarily hold true today at the individual level, but across various populations, it often does. The increase of proper nutrition and overall well-being has yielded an increasingly tall population in certain areas of the world, such as Europe.


The hardwired need for protection and strength could also be why women tend to prefer taller men for romantic partnerships. In a 2000 study published in Nature, Polish and English scientists looked at over 3,000 men of varying heights and found that the taller men tended to be married and have kids more often than the shorter men did. A study conducted by Dr. Daniel Nettle at the Open University came to a similar conclusion, using historical data to deduce that tall men have a better chance of mating as well.


Lifespan: Measured with a Ruler?
Statuesque men and women may be socially blessed when it comes to their stature, but when it comes to the physical, whether it’s better to be tall or short becomes a bit muddled. Some argue that smaller bodies equal less energy consumption by the body, which ultimately leads to a slower aging process. On the flip side, researchers at Bristol University and published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health concluded that taller people have always lived longer than their diminutive brethren and have better lung and heart function.


Based on various studies, it does seem that height plays a role in the probability of developing certain diseases. At the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, research showed that men over six feet tall are at more of a risk for prostate cancer by almost 60 percent compared to men under 5’7". But when it comes to hearts, smaller folks might have more of a chance of getting heart attacks. According to a 1990 study at the Boston University School of Public Health, females under five feet tall are more likely to have a heart attack than average-sized women (about five feet, four inches in the U.S.). Another study at a Rhode Island hospital showed that smaller men have a greater risk for symptoms of heart disease, such as high blood pressure. However, the Framingham Heart Study couldn’t find the same connection.


Just as height is a product of both genes and environmental factors, how healthy we are and the likelihood of getting diseases is a combination of lifestyle and hereditary predisposition. It’s true that populations that have good prenatal care and access to nutritious foods tend to be taller than populations that are malnourished, which in severe cases can prevent people from reaching their height potential. But that doesn’t correlate to the individual level; in well-fed and cared for countries like the U.S., genetics are a larger predictor of height than nutrition is. Tall people are not necessarily the beacons of health and strength any more than short people are sickly and weak.


One for the Shorties
Aside from potentially having less of a prostate cancer risk, people below average height do have one thing going for them, according to neuroscientist David Eagleman. He uses someone’s foot being tickled as an example, arguing that it would take a tenth of a second longer for a taller person’s brain to process the action than a shorter person because the information has a longer way to travel from the foot to the brain. In his view, tall people live life on a slight delay, albeit a mostly insignificant one.


So based on various studies, tall individuals are more likely to get paid more while short people … get a tenth of a second’s advantage. Of course, if it really was that simple, I might be compelled to go out and purchase shoe lifters. But for every survey or study claiming that women go for tall guys or that short men are more likely to have high blood pressure, there are exceptions to the rule proving that correlation doesn’t imply causation.

Updated December 27, 2009


Related Story: Did You Know These Celebs Were That Tall (or Short)?

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