There’s just something appealing about tall men. Napoleon aside, tall men are more likely to win the popular contest in presidential votes and to be re-elected once in office (Stulp, 2013). Their greater leadership potential may have something to do with the fact that tall men have higher self-esteem (whether or not deserved), are happier, and less likely to feel jealous toward other men. When it comes to romantic partners, men and women tend to sort themselves out so that they form pairs of similar height. However, among married couples, women are more likely to be shorter than their husbands, if only by a few inches.
In an intriguing 2013 study, Dutch psychologists Gert Stulp, Abraham Buunk, and Thomas Pollet followed up on some of their earlier work on male height to find out more about what leads women to prefer those lanky guys. They were also curious to learn how and why people are satisfied with their own height.
Evolutionarily speaking, one might argue that a tall man would be preferred by women because, if you follow the argument, he’ll be stronger and better able to ward off physical treats to his family. In the beast-eats-man world of primitive civilizations, this argument might have a rationale. However, unless taller equals stronger, faster, and smarter even in this scenario, height wouldn’t seem to offer any particularly unique advantage.
You can probably come up with your own counter-arguments to the evolutionary interpretation on your own. Three come to mind for me. First, taller men may only seem stronger because we conflate height with weight and strength. Second, being “looked up to,” quite literally, may at some subconscious level lead taller men to feel that they have superior qualities. Third, and most importantly from a scientific perspective, we simply don’t have the experimental cause-and-effect data to back up the idea that social attitudes and not the caveman explanation are behind any particular set of mating advantages being conferred to taller men.
The tall man=power equation may simply be part of the male-female power differential. Men are taller because of hormonal influences, to be sure. This then becomes translated into social attitudes. We’re all conditioned by media images to prefer men and women with a certain kind of appearance. As proponents of a biosocial gender approach argue, the two sets of influences are completely, and utterly, intertwined.
There was also a very practical reason that motivated Stulp and his team to investigate height preferences. We tend to think that we’re stuck with the height our genes and environments jointly determine. However, some parents seek to take matters into their own hands by giving their too-short or too-tall children hormonal treatments during the years of active growth. Their reasons for changing their children’s heights probably vary all over the place, but a main motivation, we might imagine, is to help their children fit in better among their peers and, ultimately, have better luck in the dating and mating department. Such treatments can involve considerable risk, expense, and subsequent resentment from their height-manipulated offspring. If the treatments don’t pay off in terms of intended benefits, there’s even less reason for parents even to think about going through with such radical interventions.
Let’s get to the findings. Stulp and his colleagues sought to understand not only who prefers whom in terms of height, but also how people feel about their own height. The participants in this study were 650 first-year heterosexual psychology students who received course credit for completing the survey. They estimated their own height, and reported on their sex, ethnicity (most were Dutch or German), and reported on their sexual orientation. The rest of the questions, simply enough, asked them to report on their relationship status, the height of their partner, the satisfaction with their own height, and their satisfaction with the height of their partners.
The results on partner preferences are a bit discouraging if you’re a short man. In general, women were more likely than men to think that the man should be taller and they didn’t want to be in a relationship in which they were taller than their male partners. Men liked being taller than their partners, but they didn’t care about the height difference as much as women did.
As it turns out, people do tend to partner with people of similar height due to a phenomenon known as assortative mating. However, no one seemed totally happy with their partner’s actual height. Men were most satisfied with women slightly shorter than them (about 3 in.), but women were most satisfied when they were much shorter than their male partners (about 8 in.).
How do all these partner differences translate to personal satisfaction? The findings for women were surprising in light of the partner preference data. Tall women were more satisfied with their height than short women were. This could be because of the tall man’s preference for slightly less tall women, as the authors conclude. However, I would argue that tall women are portrayed highly favorably in the celebrity world from models to Hollywood actresses, and that these images actually may be having a positive effect on women who might otherwise feel that they are “too tall” for their man.
Unfortunately, in the area of personal satisfaction, there was some bad news from this study for short men, who- like the shorter women- reported being dissatisfied with their height. These findings are consistent with the data from other studies showing that tall men enjoy an advantage in self-esteem and happiness. Here again, the authors link the dissatisfaction of the shorter men to the fact that women prefer tall men. However, it’s also possible that mate preferences have nothing to do with the self-esteem of shorter men and that they simply face discrimination due to the social advantages afforded to the height-favored. It's also possible that similar discrimination leads to some of the short women’s dissatisfaction with their bodies.
There are two pessimistic interpretations of these findings, then. One is that no one is ever truly happy with the height of his or her partner. We can offset this by keeping in mind the age group of the participants might offer some hope. People can “grow” to love their partners for more than their physical attributes, particularly once they get past the earliest and most judgmental phases of life, and relationships. The other finding, that short men and women are both dissatisfied with their height, may also apply more to the young than the psychologically more mature. Again, this is a problem that time, and greater experience in the world, can help them conquer.
The authors conclude their fascinating study by pointing out that much of this height perception and preference is relative. Arguing against the evolutionary interpretation, they point out that height preferences are not universal throughout the world, as has been shown in studies of non-Western sample. The authors also point out that, on the basis of their data, the idea that parents would want to control the height of their children isn’t justified. Finally, given the biases that people in Western societies have toward height, they recognize that their participants may not always be completely truthful. Perhaps people with higher personal satisfaction simply “feel” taller, and this bias leads to an inflated set of statistical results.
This study shows the hidden biases we may have toward people based on nothing other than their physical appearance. No matter what your actual height, it is the personal qualities you bring to a relationship that, eventually, will bring you into contact with your ideal partner.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013
Stulp, G., Buunk, A. P., Verhulst, S., & Pollet, T. V. (2013). Tall claims? Sense and nonsense about the importance of height of US presidents. The Leadership Quarterly, 24(1), 159-171. doi: 10.1016/j.leaqua.2012.09.002
Stulp, G., Buunk, A. P., & Pollet, T. V. (2013). Women want taller men more than men want shorter women. Personality and Individual Differences. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2012.12.019