Two Princeton economists, Anne Case and Christina Paxson, recently produced a study that examines the correlation between height and intellectual capacity. It is commonly acknowledged that taller people hold jobs of higher status and usually make more than their shorter coworkers. Most previous studies conclude that discrimination, self esteem, and social dominance are the factors that contribute to the very real differences in outcome. The 52-page paper instead offers another hypothesis: "On average, taller people earn more because they are smarter....As adults, taller individuals are more likely to select into higher paying occupations that require more advanced verbal and numerical skills and greater intelligence, for which they earn handsome returns."
And as unsavory as this paper's conclusion may seem, it is not as brutally simplistic as it sounds. True, Case and Paxson do actually posit that height and intelligence are correlated. But more importantly, (and very easily ignored) it also stated that factors that affect adult height, such as malnutrition and in utero substance exposure, prevent, for lack of a better expression, full actualization of a person's potential. In short (no pun intended!), people associate taller people with less physical and psychological deprivation during childhood - deprivations that are empirically known to detrimentally affect a person's abilities. They also take pains to remove other variables from affecting their conclusions:
The authors move on to explain that smarter adults tend to gravitate towards higher status fields that place more value on intelligence - which means prestigious professionals were advantaged developmentally, and are likely to be taller. They also briefly mention a study that tried to understand the perception of height in relation to status:
Impressive and interesting as the study may be, I am disappointed that the two authors made no pains give us as readers many suggestions or cautionary notes in interpreting their study. Surely, if this was a study on the correlation of race and crime (with associated causal relations of socioeconomic factors), great efforts would be made to clearly state that determining potential criminality in an individual should not be affected by his race. Actually, even if it wasn't, we're well trained to immediately understand this (although, interestingly enough, not actually touched upon at all in this study). Sexism is also understood; the study does note that even controlling for height, women still make 17% less than their male counterparts. But heightism?
It's actually almost casually brushed aside. Case and Paxson mention that other studies hypothesize heightism (noted as "discrimination" in the paper) as a major factor in discrepancies in pay, but barely touch upon it themselves. They also mention that, when given the opportunity to do so, deprived children almost, but not completely, catch up with their taller peers in both physical and cognitive development. But what if the individual never has the opportunity to jump ahead cognitively? That is, after all, the reason that the college admissions process takes into account an individual's socioeconomic status and current potential opportunities when evaluating candidates.
Height bias is just not considered something worth quibbling with - and when you actually do, it's scoffed at and ignored. It's like a bad joke - surely you're kidding right? The reality is, short people do experience discrimination. The lack of public acknowledgement that it even exists only makes experiencing it worse. It's like the doctor telling you there's nothing wrong with you - it's all in your head. I would postulate that plenty of taller people would find the existence of sites like Short Persons Support to be completely ridiculous. After all, we're just overly sensitive right?
The release of a report like this without disclaimers is really a grave oversight - and dare I say, ethically questionable? The seriousness of the situation is clearly ignored. Kai Ryssdal even made it a joke about how he should be better paid because of his height - and this was the signoff to the popular NPR radio show Marketplace!
I cringe at the interpretations of this study. Blogs have already picked up the sound bite. I will give Case and Paxson the benefit of the doubt - perhaps this study was not meant to surface to the light of day (and impatient media handlers). I doubt most of the bloggers have even read more than the Reuters piece (and not even all of it). I already see blogs like the Huffington Post ignoring the more detailed aspects of the study. As this blog states already, "Princeton economists say findings justify better pay for more height." Here's another off MySpace that has already spawned ridiculous comments along the lines of "I guess this means I'm stupid...." (yes, yes you are if you agree that this study makes you stupid)
I'll just be waiting for an enterprising short Princeton student to hang a mockery of a banner off the economics building screaming "Short people are dumber! Princeton professors inside say so!"
Amy is the creator and primary contributor of Some Small Sense blog.