There are real advantages to being tall, and it can’t just be explained by personality

Tall tale.
Tall tale.
Image: AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack
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Height is associated with many advantages in life. Taller people tend to earn more  and are more popular on online dating sites. Almost 60% of American presidents were taller than 5’10, the current national average for men.

Economists have long speculated what makes tall people more successful. One common explanation was tall people had better social skills that came from being a popular, attractive teenager.  A positive adolescence was presumed to increase self-confidence and with it the keys to a successful life. True, economists are not known for their social skills themselves and most are relatively successful, but the tall-people-are-more-affable theory seemed like a plausible explanation for their higher earnings. But a new working paper from economists at the University of Toronto and Notre Dame takes a harder look at height, earnings, and social unease and it argues it’s cognitive skills that can explain the pay gap—not a good personality.

It’s not linear

The relationship between height and earnings is non-linear for American men. Being an inch shorter than average  correlates with annual earnings of about 5% lower. But being an inch taller than average does not have much impact (though men who are about 4 or more inches taller than average earn slightly more. There are not many gains to being tall, but there is a clear penalty to shortness. The shorter men are, relative to average, the less they earn. Men more than 20% shorter than average (66 inches or less) earn at least 10% less. Short women also earn less, but they face smaller wage penalties, about half the magnitude of short men men. But tall women do out-earn their peers. Each extra inch of female height adds about 1% more in earnings.

The economists, who controlled for ethnicity and other complicating factors, estimate that non-short people tend to work in skilled jobs that pay more and have more education.  Short Americans are also more likely to be in poor health and live in poverty.

It’s not about social skills after all

Unlike earlier studies, the paper’s authors don’t think positive social interactions in high school is a main explanation. They did not find much correlation between height and involvement in student activities, with very tall men and women a notable exception. But they did find shorter students performed worse on various measures of cognitive skills including intelligence tests that were part of their survey. The reasons why is not entirely clear: There is some evidence shorter people tend to be born with lower birth weights, but this can’t explain all the variation. It does seem most of the differences come from having shorter parents, who may pass on all the disadvantages of shorter stature.

The results raise the question about whether there is scope to level the playing field and reduce the height-earnings inequality. Perhaps students with shorter parents should get more attention in school to ensure they don’t drop out. Or perhaps short parents are deserving of a subsidy when they have children.

Of course there are outliers, short people who are tremendously successful. But for many, non-shortness is another advantage some have in life.