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.