Study: Feeling Small Makes People More Paranoid

Women made shorter in a virtual reality situation compared themselves more negatively to others and reported more paranoid feelings.
Peter Becker/flickr

Problem: In the face of a mountain lion, you’re supposed to make yourself look as large as possible, so the conventional wisdom goes, in order to project a fearsome image and make the mountain lion admit that in fact, you are the dominant animal, and perhaps it’d be better not to eat you.

A recent study published in Psychiatry Research shows that, among our own species, human vulnerability works in a similar, but perhaps more low-stakes way. 

Methodology: So height is an “established correlate of social rank,” according to the study. Previous research has shown that tall people enjoy all kinds of advantages: They reach higher education levels, get better jobs, earn more, and just generally feel better about their lives. Height can also convey social dominance. The hypothesis here was that making people feel shorter than their normal height would increase feelings of paranoia.

To test this, the researchers—bless them—built a virtual reality version of the London underground station, and a train that travels between stations. Sixty women who had paranoid thoughts within the previous month experienced this virtual world (differences have been shown in how gender affects height perception, so the researchers thought they’d better stick to one gender this time). They each went through the virtual landscape twice, and the researchers altered some people’s heights the second time to make them about 10 inches shorter. After each run through, participants completed measures of social comparison and paranoia.

Results: For the most part, the participants didn’t notice that they’d become virtually shorter. But they still felt the effects. Riding the virtual train while smaller made people evaluate themselves more negatively compared with others (a lower social status), and they had greater levels of paranoia as well.

Implications: Much like the mountain lion, the human predator recognizes (social) weakness in smaller size. When made to feel smaller, we feel more vulnerable, and thus expect people to be out to get us more. Though this study only confirms these effects in women, the researchers posit that the results could be even more pronounced in men, who have been shown in earlier research to overestimate their height even more than women do.

The study, “Height, social comparison, and paranoia: An immersive virtual reality experimental study,” appeared in Psychiatry Research.

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Julie Beck is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Health Channel.

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