Standing Tall

It's not always fun being tall. Clothes that fit are hard to find, and flying coach can be a pain. But on the bright side, studies show that tall people are frequently winners when it comes to IQ and income

February 18, 2007|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,sun staff

"Short people got no reason to live." Singer Randy Newman, still not living down "Short People"

Try singing about being tall. Try sitting in the middle seat of an airplane. Go ahead, find jeans, a snowboard jacket or a bed that fits right. Prone to slouching and shrinking, tall people will never be accused of having a commanding complex named after Napoleon. Tall people, in fact, are a rather soft-spoken, introverted subset of humans, who always field these profound questions:

Did you play basketball? (You better be good.)

How's the weather up there? (Resist striking questioner.)

Could you please reach up on that shelf and get me those 24 rolls of toilet paper?

The vertically endowed face unspeakable challenges, and these obstacles continue to mount. First, university researchers a few years ago calculated that an inch of height is worth an additional $789 a year in salary. For example, a 6-foot-tall man will earn about $5,500 more than an equally qualified 5-foot-6 male. The underlying message is height equals stature and the perception of leadership abilities. We want to look up to people. Tall people, our warrior kings, will lead and protect us.

Who needs that responsibility? Do you think it's easy making $5,500 more than the next shorter guy? Have you ever tried to live with that guilt? And what if you are the exception to that statistical average?

Two economists from Princeton have done the salary-height studies one better. According to researchers Anne Case and Christina Paxson, tall people earn more on average because they are smarter. There it is. End of story - but not this story. Tall people, already burdened by financial success and an adoring Republic, now have to live with the fact they are intellectually superior even if they are prone to slouching and shrinking.

How does this happen?

"As early as age 3 - before schooling has had a chance to play a role - and throughout childhood, taller children perform significantly better on cognitive tests," wrote the Princeton authors in their 2006 study, "Stature and Status: Height, Ability and Labor Market Outcomes."

The researchers stress the importance of proper nutrition received in the womb and in the first three years of life as both height and cognitive ability determinants. The study is clearly designed to be read by tall (i.e. smart) people, given the use of the terms "cognitive ability" and "determinants." Not surprising, then, to further read in the study: "As adults, taller individuals are more likely to select into higher-paying occupations that require more advanced verbal and numerical skills and greater intelligence."

In other words, there are, on average, more tall company executives, managers and salesmen than tall mining machine operators and farmers. (What would we all do without farmers? Not fuss about our height, for one thing.)

With its emphasis on early nutrition and prenatal care, the Princeton study suggests the so-called "height premium" has less to do with social biases or expectations. But the workplace apparently goes to great heights to hire the tall. In his book Blink,The New Yorker's Malcolm Gladwell polled about half the companies on the Fortune 500 list and found that most of the chief executive officers are about 6 feet tall (and mostly white men - shocking!). Gladwell reported about 14.5 percent of the U.S. population are men six feet and over - yet the figure is 58 percent for Fortune 500 CEO's. Obviously, something is going on besides a power resume or 5-handicap in golf.

"We see a tall person, and we swoon," Gladwell writes. "Most of us ... automatically associate leadership ability with imposing physical stature. We have a sense, in our minds, of what a leader is supposed to look like."

He's supposed to look tall.

Even our anti-heroes are tall. Frankenstein, King Kong, Darth Vader - they all had trouble finding jeans. We bet Snoop Dogg always gets an aisle seat. The country certainly elects tall, with the exception of John Kerry. Look at our presidents: The voguish Abraham Lincoln was 6 feet 4. Thomas Jefferson, LBJ and Bill Clinton were no runts, either. Ronald Reagan looked tall. If the presidential election were held today and based solely on the candidate's height, it would be a very silly election; more to the point, Sen. Barack Obama could sweep. At over 6 feet, Obama could well dwarf the field - that is, until former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney announced this week. Really, how did the not-tall Michael Dukakis or Ross Perot stand a chance? Dennis Kucinich. Please.

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