Tall Tales and Short Shrift

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Dan Akst's post on height opens up one of the most intriguing topics in social science -- not the well-established fact that tall people earn more than short people but why this is so. The authors of the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) study he cites say it's because tall people have been more likely to have reached their full cognitive development -- in other words, their IQs grew faster, too.

But that can't be the whole explanation. The world's leading scholar of height, whose work tends to support their hypothesis, is John Komlos of the University of Munich. His life story recently appeared in the New Yorker. He is one of the rare Americans to have his own institute at one of Germany's premier universities. At 5 feet 7, probably as a result of wartime and postwar malnutrition under Hungary's totalitarian regimes (his family emigrated after the 1956 revolution), Komlos developed such a powerful interest in the determinants of stature that he virtually created it as a subdiscipline. His disadvantage, contrary to the NBER paper, probably promoted his cognitive development.

The sociologist Irving Goffman was one of the highest paid members of his discipline and liked to boast that his royalties and investments each were at least equal to his salary. (Among other things, he had qualified as a blackjack dealer and pit boss in a Las Vegas casino, according to colleagues.) His former graduate student, Gary Marx, remembered him:

As a Canadian Jew of short stature working at the margins (or perhaps better, frontiers) of a marginal discipline, he was clearly an outsider. His brilliance and marginality meant an acute eye and a powerful imagination. He had a fascination with other people's chutzpah, weirdness and perhaps even degradation. He appreciated people who had a good thing going and those able to assert themselves in the face of what could be an oppressive social structure and culture. In a stodgy, timid, bureaucratic world the hustler has a certain freshness and perverse appeal.

In his book Stigma (1963), Goffman observed that there is "only one completely unblushing male in America: a young, married, white, urban, northern, heterosexual, Protestant father of good complexion, weight, height, and a recent record in sports" Such men might become CEOs more often than others, but they're less likely to excel in other well-paid endeavors -- stand-up comedy, among other things -- where skills honed in childhood can flourish.

On the social level, studies are linking height with well-being, and diminishing US physical (and possible economic and political) stature with rising inequality. The credit for Northern European stature goes not to genes but to the European welfare state, Komlos and his collaborators have suggested. Here's a new motto for the US's social democrats: "Grow Up, America!"

Paradoxically, though, as Europeans get taller they appear to be choosing shorter leaders, or rather once more accepting the rule of assertive short people. And while Barak Obama is several inches taller than John McCain, the role of height in US politics has always been complex, or so I suggested during the 2004 campaign, before George W. Bush neutralized the four-inch gap with John Kerry.

See this paper (subscription possibly required) on the paradox that the effect of height on income appears due to adolescent experience rather than to effects of adult height. The white males in this study who were short in high school but grew to normal or above-average height in later growth spurts had the same disadvantages as those who remained short. So it's early social disadvantages, including lower participation in team sports, rather than later discrimination that is key. See also the excellent book of the science writer Stephen S. Hall, Size Matters, reviewed here.

The lesson I draw: It's attitude, not altitude, that matters.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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