Height and Dominance
KeywordsBody Size Leadership Quality Narrow Passage Hierarchical Position Tall Individual
The relationship between height and dominance refers to a position in a hierarchy based on body height.
In many mammalian species, dominance is positively associated with body size. All else being equal, larger individuals should be more likely to win than smaller individuals in contests. Building on findings from the animal kingdom, evolutionary psychologists have argued for similar associations between body size and dominance in humans. Indeed, it seems that both historically and cross-culturally body size is believed positively associated with dominance. One often noted example is that political leaders in Melanesia and Polynesia are referred to as “big men,” and they are often physically big men (Sahlins 1963). Similarly, today, in Western societies, positive associations between stature and political leadership exist. For example, ratings of American presidents’ leadership abilities positively correlate with their stature. Intuitively, one would therefore speculate that across the globe, dominance positively relates to height. In this encyclopedia entry, one aspect of body size, height, is discussed, and the evidence for a positive association between stature and interpersonal dominance is briefly reviewed.
Height and Dominance
Dominance interactions in humans remain understudied, and evidence for a positive relationship between height and dominance thus remains rather circumstantial. For example, research suggests that taller individuals might have more strength (Vaz et al. 2002), have better fighting ability (von Rueden et al. 2008), and are able to generate a larger force when striking (Carrier 2011) than shorter individuals. Taller individuals are also perceived as more powerful and stronger than shorter individuals (e.g., Huang et al. 2002). The reverse also holds that more powerful individuals are estimated as being taller (e.g., Fessler et al. 2012). Tallness also is found to be positively associated with perceived leadership qualities (Stulp et al. 2013). Taller individuals might have more authority in business settings (Judge and Cable 2004) or sports (Stulp et al. 2012). Finally, only a few studies have studied actual behavior which can be labeled as dominant in naturalistic settings, such as having “right of way” (Stulp et al. 2015). For example, when faced with a narrow passage, taller individuals are more likely to take precedence than shorter individuals, all else being equal.
In conclusion, various strands of evidence corroborate the claim that tallness is positively associated with dominance. Yet, it is important to bear in mind that height is clearly correlated to a whole suite of other traits, including socioeconomic status, and as such teasing apart the independent effect of size itself for dominance could be difficult (especially given that we cannot experimentally manipulate human height directly). Moreover, it should be noted that any relationships found between height and interpersonal dominance tend to be weak. Perhaps, unsurprisingly muscularity appears to be a better correlate of interpersonal dominance, at least in perception studies (e.g., Sell et al. 2012). Finally, it must be noted that there is actually not that much research on height and dominance and that it is mostly limited to men. Therefore, while Western societies might have fewer dominance interactions due to the state monopoly of violence, height and dominance remain an interesting domain for further investigation, but studying the role of stature in dominant behavior in a naturalistic setting might prove challenging.
References and Further Reading
- Huang, W., Olson, J. S., & Olson, G. M. (2002). Camera angle effects dominance in video-mediated communication. Proceedings of the conference on human factors in computing systems (pp. 716–717).Google Scholar