Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Are You Sure We Prefer Taller Leaders?

Well, maybe something else is going on, too.

Pic: Leaders step forward?

In this post, I'm going to look at this issue from the perspective of leaders. Maybe followers are not necessarily looking for taller leaders, maybe taller people are more likely to put themselves forward as leaders. In democracies, almost any citizen can run for office. For the 2012 presidential election, throngs of citizens did not get together to force Obama, Romney, Gingrich, and Paul to vie for the presidency. These "big men" (Gingrich and Paul are shortest at 6'0") volunteered to run.

As background, research on all kinds of animals, human and nonhuman, shows that greater physical size and higher social rank go together. This relationship has been found in a wide range of nonhuman animals, from our closest relatives, chimpanzees, gorillas, and baboons, to African elephants, Red Deer, and even to varieties of birds and fish.

In the realm of human animals, anthropologists measuring skeletons in pre-classical Greek and ancient Mayan graves found a clear association between greater physical stature and "political control" (those anthropologists have all the fun). Further, modern humans tend to perceive individuals with greater authority status as taller than they actually are and, conversely, to perceive taller individuals as having higher professional status. (This study was based on rating professors, and yes, as an average-height professor, this worries me a little). Research in a variety of countries also shows, among other advantages, that taller males make more money and get more job promotions. And finally, in politics specifically, winners of elections are perceived as being taller after than before the election, while losers suffer yet another indignity and are perceived as shorter.

With these solid connections between physical stature and social/leadership status in mind, in our second study Dave and I asked undergraduate students a series of questions about their own leadership characteristics. In particular, we asked how qualified they felt they were to run for an elected position as well as how interested they were in running. Of course, we also asked how tall they are.

What we found is interesting. Taller males are more likely to think of themselves as qualified to be a leader and, via this increased sense of qualification, they are more likely to demonstrate an interest in running for a leadership position. In other words, it seems that tall men are more likely to throw their hat in the ring for office. What about the females? Maybe even more interestingly, our results show that height is not related to either self-perceived qualification for, or interest in, running for office. But I'll save the incendiary topic of sex differences in leadership attainment for an upcoming post.

So, are our leaders tall because followers prefer them that way, or is it because taller people are more likely to put themselves forward as leaders? Our research shows that it's probably a bit of both. Human behavior is interesting but complicated. As a scientist, the more I learn the more I realize I don't know. One thing I do know, though, is that I wish I were as tall as Dave.

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.

Image source: