Do We Really Prefer Taller Leaders?

Yes, according to prognosticating pundits and surprising research.

Posted Nov 14, 2011

Sample drawing of leader meeting citizen.

But first, are you wondering about the current crop of candidates eyeing the 2012 presidential election? Incumbent Barack Obama is 6'1", while major challengers Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, and Ron Paul are, respectively, 6'2", 6'1", 6'0", 6'0", and 6'0". Our evolutionary argument, which I will explain next, does not say that Romney will win because he is the tallest candidate. It suggests that we prefer our leaders in general to be tall. And the fact that each of these candidates is taller than the average U.S. male citizen, who is my size at 5'9", is completely consistent with this argument.

So why would we prefer taller leaders? Our explanation relies on evolutionary psychology, which suggests that human behavior is the result of not only people's environment, such as things they learn from their parents, but also long-term evolutionary forces, such as psychological mechanisms that evolved to solve our ancestors' problems regarding survival and reproduction. Although it may seem irrational in the modern context, we may prefer taller leaders because our ancestors who selected more formidable allies-height is a common cue for physical formidability-were more likely to survive and pass on related genes in their violent environment. In other words, when our ancestors had a big, strong friend who would help them acquire and protect resources (e.g., food, shelter, and territory), they had a relative advantage in terms of living longer and producing more children.

We conducted two studies to test this argument. The first study took the perspective of followers (versus leaders). We gave our subjects, U.S. and international undergraduate students at different schools in different parts of the country, three tasks: draw the "ideal national leader," draw "the typical citizen," and, finally, draw a meeting of the leader and citizen. Because we expect people to prefer more physically formidable leaders, we predicted our subjects would tend to draw a taller leader meeting a shorter citizen, with height measured by the vertical size of the figures. In fact, that is what we found. More than twice as many subjects (64%) drew a taller leader than drew a taller citizen (31%). And remember the reference to the international students? We found similar patterns in their responses, which suggests the preference for leaders with greater physical stature not only exists in the U.S. but also in different cultures around the world. This is important evidence to evolutionary psychologists, because they argue that a universal behavior cannot be explained by people learning from their specific environment; therefore, evolutionary forces, not environmental-cultural forces, are the most likely explanation for the behavior.

Still not convinced we prefer taller leaders? Coming up in my next post I will talk about leadership preferences of ancient Mayans and pre-classical Greeks as well as really interesting leadership behavior in chimpanzees, gorillas, and, of course, Red Deer (okay, maybe baboons, too). I will also tell you about our second study, which looks at the issue from the perspective of potential leaders and which raises the question: Do we have taller leaders because we prefer them or because of some other reason?

For more information, see: Murray, Gregg R., & J. David Schmitz. 2011. "Caveman Politics: Evolutionary Leadership Preferences and Physical Stature." Social Science Quarterly 92(5): 1215-35.