Studies have long shown that tall people earn more and are treated with more reverence. The last American president with below average height was William McKinley, at 5’7”, and that was over a century ago. It’s a pecking order that precedes humanity, in fact, “an evolution from the days of primates,” as one CEO told USA Today.
A new study puts a twist on this established fact, though: Height not only makes one likely to acquire power; as Jack Goncalo of Cornell University and Michelle Duguid of Washington University write in a forthcoming issue of Psychological Science, “the powerful may actually feel taller than they are.”
Goncalo and Duguid performed three experiments with 266 men and women. “Using different manipulations of power and measures of perceived height, we found that people literally perceived themselves as taller when they occupied a more powerful position,” they write in their paper. One metric they used, for instance, was to have people assign height to a video game avatar; another was to have people estimate their height relative to a pole. Feelings of power were evoked by asking participants to remember situations where they had wielded power over another.
The new findings add to already rich and decades-old literature surrounding the relationship between height and power. In 1968, an Australian psychologist brought the same man into a room, presenting him to five different groups of students. With each different group, he altered the supposed status of the man, presenting him as student, lecturer, or professor. Later he had each group estimate the man’s height. As Jonathan Rauch wrote in his 1995 article “Short Guys Finish Last”: “Not only was the ‘professor’ thought to be more than two inches taller than the ‘student’; the height estimates rose in proportion to his perceived status.”
What are the implications of such findings for business? For one thing, if a mere sense of height is so closely correlated with feelings of power, perhaps it would possible to leverage the findings to help empower the meek. Goncalo wonders if it would be possible, even, for a short person to gain an ego boost by occupying a top-floor office.
More importantly, though, the findings might be used to help the powerful mitigate the consequences of their height-related hubris. Goncolo and Duguid, in their paper, point to one famous instance. In the wake of the BP’s disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the company’s Chairman, Carl-Henric Svanberg, gave a press conference in which he insisted, “We care about the small people.” Though BP begged off the matter as a question of translation (Svanberg is Swedish), the new paper suggests that in a way, Svanberg may have just been giving a glimpse into the psychology of the too-powerful.
In the end, the business lessons of the new study, and of all height-and-power studies, is simply to bear this strong and seemingly hard-wired relationship in mind. If you want to succeed in business, it probably doesn’t hurt to stand a little straighter. And if you’re fortunate enough to wield so much power that it sometimes gets you into trouble, try slouching a little, to share the perspective of “the small people.”