Cognitive Daily

What is it worth to become taller?

i-47f56f57c3df03f4cb95982cd8dfb237-jimtall.jpgAt 15, our son Jim is taller than average for his age. Indeed, he’s as tall as me, as this photo illustrates. Our daughter Nora is below average height, 4′ 11″ at 13 years old, but still squarely in the normal range. But what happens when a child is well below normal — when, say, a boy’s growth puts him on track to be less than five feet tall as an adult?

Some studies have suggested that shorter men are likely to earn less and be at greater risk for psychological problems. As a recent L.A. Times article suggests, conventional wisdom has it that short women are treated condescendingly, and short men are less likely to get dates and may be discriminated against in the workplace.

In response to these concerns, some parents have actually begun treatment with synthetic growth hormone to give their kids a boost — typically around 2 inches, but variable from child to child. The treatments aren’t cheap — they cost upwards of $50,000, but some kids have already seen dramatic results.

So, is it worth it? The Times cites research questioning the conventional wisdom on height:

The real nitty-gritty of the so-called height advantage is money. Tall men make more money.

That has been borne out by multiple studies, including one reported in the October 2004 Journal of Political Economy. Researchers reported that for white men in the United States, every additional inch of height is associated with a 1.8% increase in wages. The tallest quarter of the population earns 13% more than the shortest quarter.

But those same researchers, from the University of Pennsylvania, analyzed the data further. They found that increased income isn’t associated with final adult height. Rather, boys who are taller in their teen years, even if their final height was average or short, earned more than boys who were short during adolescence, even if their final adult height was tall.

So short men who went through a tall spell in high school, around the age of 16, but then stopped growing had similar earning power to tall men who were short at 16, then had a growth spurt. It’s likely, the researchers say, that the workplace isn’t discriminating against short men. Rather, those men who were shorter than their peers in high school may have missed out on opportunities in dating, sports and other activities that teach kids skills that the work force will some day value. “Those who were relatively short when young were less likely to participate in social activities associated with the accumulation of productive skills,” the paper reported.

So being short while young and therefore missing out on social opportunities appears to be the real driver behind the phenomenon of taller mean earning more than shorter men. Perhaps that $50,000 would be better spent on dance lessons and cotillion club than doctors and hormone injections. Though arguably, parents who can afford the shots can also afford the other perks as well. As for our kids, both of them are active in their own ways, each of which seem unrelated to height. Which brings up another problem with relying on research like this: just making your kid taller isn’t necessarily going to make him a success. There are plenty of tall failures, too.

Note:We’re trying a new format for “news” posts for the next week. I’ll be posting news briefs like this every morning and quick “in other news” links every afternoon. You’ll have a chance to let us know what you think about the change next week.


  1. #1 J-Dog
    January 17, 2007

    I would be interested to see results on a similar study for women.

  2. #2 BenP
    January 17, 2007

    Is it the same things for tenure tracks ? Small men don’t get tenure maybe…

  3. #3 Agnostic
    January 17, 2007

    A reader of Steve Sailer’s blog found suggestive evidence that rock musicians were shorter than country western musicians, so I looked at the same for “pretty boys” and hip-hop stars, and they too were about average in height.

    Height can’t be a “be-all end-all” trait since if it were, males would all be the same height (rather than form a normal distribution), the way our lungs all process oxygen. It’s important enough to male reproductive success that males are about 2 SD (~6 inches) taller than females on average (5’4 vs 5’10), but the benefits like greater pay have to do with relative height.

    By definition, only 10% of guys will be in the top 10% of the height distribution, so unless everyone were the same height, it will never be the case that all or even most guys enjoy the benefits of “being tall.” Though I guess if the cost of hormone treatment is that expensive, only a few people could use it anyway.

    During human evolution, guys who were +1 SD or higher and -1 SD or lower probably had roughly the same expected value for reproductive success. You’re less likely than the mean guy to score if you’re short, but you might be saved by whatever appeal rockstars, hip-hop stars, and pretty boys have. And being above +1 SD would likely have slotted you into a brutally competitive niche (leader of a war party, tribal chief, etc.), so again a high-risk high-payoff situation.

    Since we’ve adapted to civilization, this constraint might have been relaxed — tall guys no longer have a small likelihood of reproducing due to getting killed in warfare, brawls / feuds, and so on.

  4. #4 Peter
    January 17, 2007

    “Some studies have suggested that shorter men are likely to earn less and be at greater risk for psychological problems. ” It seems to me that these are correlational data unless you actually manipulate body height with synthetic growth hormones. If this is the case, the smaller body height does not have to be the cause of the lower socioeconomic status of these men. A third variable might influence both factors. For example, if a woman takes drugs during pregnancy, this might influence both body growth and brain development of her child. There are a number of other factors which might influence both variables, like malnutrition or other health factors.
    Thus, the results showing a relationship between body size and socioeconomic status do not necessarily mean that small men are treated worse. For example, asians are smaller than average, but there is a positive stereotype which says that asians are smarter. However, there is the possibility that small men are discriminated because of a positive relationship between body size and physical and mental health and people take this relationship as a heuristic when they have to judge somebody and have no other information, i.e. they are lead subconsciously by the biological knowledge that tall men are healthier. However, I would suspect that men that are much taller than average have problems getting women, too.
    I think it is a bad idea to give a child growth hormones, there might be some side effects. Besides, there is also a stereotype of ambitious small man (think of Napoleon).

  5. #5 bigTom
    January 17, 2007

    I suspect a lot of cause has to do with the creation of personality. I’m somewhat tall for my cohort (6-1), but grew late. A former co-worker -who was very large considered me to be an enimgma, I was
    a tall person, but had a personaility like a sort person. I suspect our personalities are largely determined in the early teen years, and relative height and size differences can have a substantial effect.

  6. #6 Jonathan Vos Post
    January 17, 2007

    I’d heard (but never seen the paper) that the correlation with American men and height gave a maximum income at 6′ 2″ — taller than that, people began to be intimidated and react negatively.

    I’m a hair over 6 feet tall, but was the 2nd shortest in my class during 3rd grade. I remember the improvement as I grew, though the signal to noise ratio is poor.

    My son was short for some time, but is now 6′ 3.5″ and it has apparently helped his popularity at university. He was short when he started college, at age thirteen (yes, 13) but as he grew, he was able to be elected to student government positions and president of various clubs. Those sort of things can contribute to later income.

    Again, these are anecdotal, but does anyone know about that 6′ 2″ paper?

    Also, it is folklore that the corporate world rewards men who are tall in terms of their position at the conference table. That is, leg length doesn’t matter as much as being able to “stare down” someone seated during a negotiation or, perhaps, a job interview.

  7. #7 Theo Bromine
    January 17, 2007

    If “dating, sports and other activities”, as practiced in highschools, “teach kids skills that the work force will some day value”, those skills are bullying, deception, valuing the superficial etc. That’s just sad, but explains a lot about the state of the world.

    1) I am female, short (5’3″), always short in school, not to mention the fact that I was always chronologically younger than the rest of my class, and also socially inept beyond that. I am a techie, and >90% of my co-workers have been men throughout my career. A few years ago, I discovered an advantage to having become accustomed to being shorter than just about everybody: A male colleague and I were discussing another one of our co-workers, and he mentioned that this person was accustomed to bullying people to get his own way, because he was a large and imposing man. I hadn’t even noticed. Sure he was taller than me, but so was everyone else.

    2) In my current job, I often collaborate with colleagues from different parts of the world, many of whom I have not even met. It would be interesting to study how the dynamics change for this sort of interaction where the bulk of communication is done by voice or text.

  8. #8 David Group
    January 19, 2007

    Random thoughts:

    1) How does this compare with being unattractive or geeky in high school?

    2) What if you did this study just with celebrities? I’m sure anybody could name movie and rock stars who are shorter than normal, e.g., Tom Cruise and Ronnie James Dio.

    3) The parents spending money on growth hormone treatments reminds of the Family Guy episode where Peter happens to meet several Jews who were smart and successful, then concludes that if his own son converts to Judaism, he too will become smart and successful. 😀

  9. #9 Ivan T
    January 21, 2007

    Rather, boys who are taller in their teen years, even if their final height was average or short, earned more than boys who were short during adolescence, even if their final adult height was tall…

    Look, this suggests to me the experiences during teenage years are somehow more important than later experiences, for equal time lengths.

    “Those who were relatively short when young were less likely to participate in social activities associated with the accumulation of productive skills,” the paper reported.

    I was one of the tallest at school for nearly two years, and during that time I didn’t even know of some social activities half of my class had participated in*. So I don’t find it easy to believe it’s social activities as such. The answer should be less trivial.

    (*) When I found that out, I was truly shocked. I imagine this kind of incidents made me think more deeply.

  10. #10 khalifa
    February 24, 2007

    im 17 and ill be 18 in 3 months and i think im short im 166cm and my older brother is 178cm is this normal what can i Do to become taller ??

  11. #11 Dave Munger
    February 26, 2007

    Khalifa —

    I wouldn’t say your height is outside of the “normal” range. You may also grow some more — I grew about 2 inches (5 cm) after I turned 18.

    Height also varies depending on race and culture, so while you might be well below average among white men, you would be close to average among Asian men.

New comments have been temporarily disabled. Please check back soon.