Height and Negotiation

12:41 Tue 16 Mar 2010
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Taller people seem to have a number of social advantages, from increased earnings to (for men) increased desirability. It’s also an advantage in negotiations.

Various explanations for this have been posited, for example the fairly plausible idea that height correlates greater physical development earlier in life and hence to greater self-esteem.

A study cited in The Body has a Mind of its Own, however, suggests that we deal with height in a way that is both more ingrained and more shallow than that.

In summary, the Stanford study by Jeremy Bailenson sets up a virtual reality world where participants have avatars of varying heights. Participants first see their avatars in a virtual mirror and are allowed to move around and get used to their avatars (and their virtual heights). They then interact with another participant (via their avatars) and take part in a negotiation.

The outcome of the negotiations is strongly correlated to the heights of the avatars. The taller avatars do far better in the negotiation game than the shorter avatars. This appears to be the case regardless of the actual height of the participants[1].

I was quite shocked to read that[2]. Prior to reading the findings, I was pretty sure that a participant’s actual height, and their lifetime of interactions at that height, would be the determining factor and would override a few minutes of virtual play at some other height. Nope. At some level, we’re apparently wired deeply to respond to height in our interactions. So deeply that a change in height (even only virtually) will alter our responses rapidly.

This deeply ingrained heuristic is clearly rather problematic—for example, Malcolm Gladwell points out that 58% of Fortune 500 CEOs are over six feet tall, versus 14.5% of American men. While there are explanations for this that don’t rely on pervasive height bias[3], the extent of the bias and the evidence from the Bailenson study suggest that humans have a fundamental problem being rational about height. Culturally the fact that greater height leads to greater confidence, and our very wrong association of confidence with competence, means that we end up giving unfair breaks to the incompetent tall and punishing the competent-but-less-confident-or-shorter.

  1. The Body has a Mind of its Own. Sandra Blakeslee and Matthew Blakeslee. New York: Random House, 2007. ISBN-13: 9781400064694.
[2] So shocked, apparently, that it too me until now to recover sufficiently to write the post, having first noted it as a post idea 20 August 2008.

[3] CEOs are generally from wealthier backgrounds, hence more likely to have had good access to nutrition going back several generations, and it’s therefore possible that some of the skew is from all the CEOs coming from a very small social class which happens to have a high percentage of tall people in it.

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