As I’m sure you’re all aware, around these digs at Neurotopia, size counts. Especially on Fridays. But size counts today in a DIFFERENT way. Honest. No penises until tomorrow. I swear.
I’ve been meaning to blog about this for a while. For at least a week, in fact. But things like “life” always try to get in the way of more important things like “blogging”. Silly life. Like I care about it.
But anyway, let’s talk about status. Status and height. Because it is, after all, the size that counts.
Marsh, et al. “Larger than life; humans’ nonverbal status cues alter perceived size” PLoS ONE, 2009.
I get together with a group of my lady friends sometimes. When we get together, those who are not attached to a ball and chain on a permanent basis often talk about what they desire in a mate. I’ve heard a lot of preferences: good looking (or not, a non-good-looking guy will never leave a hot girl voluntarily), smart, witty, funny, whatever. But the one physical preference I hear most often: he needs to be tall. In the words of one of my awesome friends “I like my men climbable”.
Why is this? With humans, the answer appears to be as old as the birds and the bees. It’s a question of status. Physical size is a sign of maturity, it’s a sign of strength. This is true for humans as with any other animal. Tall guys make more money, and how tall you are affects how much status people think you have. It’s good to be tall. Height is correlated with health, strength, and an ability to dunk. 10 out of 12 of the presidential elections from 1952 to 1996 were won by the taller candidate. McCain should have taken one look at the long, lanky Obama and given it up as a lost cause.
But this isn’t always true, not all tall people are high status, and not all short people are low status. There are other things that influence status, particularly things calls nonverbal status cues. These cues include things like the way people stand: shoulders back as opposed to bowed forward, an open posture vs a closed one. Whether or not your eyebrows are raised or lowered; lowered brows are a sign of aggression and dominance, and people theorize this is because it makes the face look more adult and masculine, while raised eyebrows make your eyes look bigger and more childlike, and thus submissive. It can even include the gestures people make: outward directed gestures such as pointing are associated with high status.
So psychologists have known for a while what high status and low status cues were. But they didn’t know WHY the cues were high status or low status. Some hypothesized that high status cues made people seem more masculine and thus more dominant, but this doesn’t necessarily hold true, as the same status cues signal high status across men and women and do not affect perceptions of masculinity. The other hypothesis is that, like gorillas standing up and beating their chests, or cats hunching their backs and getting their fur up, high status cues simply make something look LARGER. Large is threatening, large doesn’t like to be attacked. Large is in charge.
But do high status cues affect how big we think something is? To test this, a group of researchers at Georgetown University ran a series of experiments, carefully breaking the question of status and size into four questions:
1) Do high status cues make a person seem taller?
To test the first question, the authors photographed a bunch of actors sitting and standing in various poses, and asked study participants to guess how tall the actor was. It turns out that actors in high status and neutral posts looked taller than low status poses (interestingly, high status poses also made people appear heavier). So it appears that high status cues make someone seem taller than they might otherwise.
2) If you alter the perceived size of someone, does it change their perceived status?
To do this one, the authors did some photo-editing. They took a picture of the same person standing in a neutral pose. They then altered it by changing the visual cues around them, making the person seem taller or shorter. Observe:
You’ll notice the guy on the right looks a lot shorter than the guy on the left. Same guy, same photo. Ah, the miracles of photoshop.
They then asked their participants to rate the STATUS of the person in the photo, as well as their height. Photos which had been altered to make a person appear taller also increased the amount of status they were perceived to have. This part of the study confirmed that increased height implies increased status to many people.
3) Do high status cues change how much space we think someone takes up?
The methods behind this one were a little odd. In this case, the authors took the usual photos of actors in positions of high or low status, and then created silhouettes of where the people had been standing. Using this silhouette in pictures, they measures how much space the person took up when standing in high, low, or neutral poses. The high status cues made the actors have both taller and wider silhouettes, making them appear larger. Not only that, low status cues made the target appear shorter and thinner, and take up less space, even though their actual size never changed. So it seems that high and low status cues DO alter the amount of space someone takes up, a big deal when you’re trying to improve your perceived size, to ACTUALLY get bigger.
4) Do specific high status affect both status perception and dominance?
This last experiment was also the most simple. They took all the pictures of high and low status poses and asked participants how tall, and how dominant the people in the pictures were. Unsurprisingly, the people with high status cues were seen as more dominant, but they were also perceived as being taller than they actually were.
By asking all four of these questions, the researchers could gain a consistent picture of how status cues affect someone’s perceived size. Then, if specific cues are known to be high status, and high status cues make people seem taller, you might be able to imply that high status cues work by making the person seem larger, and thus more dominant.
And that’s what they found. High dominance cues make you seem more dominant, sure, but they may also make you seem LARGER. And it appears, from the above experiments, that the perception of “larger” is part of what makes these high and low status cues so effective. The appeal of “postural openness” appeared to be best, thrown back shoulders and standing up straight. I guess the appeal of Tom Cruise (5’5″ or so, all his ladies tower over him) might be his high status cues, which make him seem larger. Coupled, of course, with a really good camera angle.
Of course, there are issues with the study. They had a relatively small group of people viewing, and there were more women tested than men, which can skew the results. And of course, it’s hard to REALLY separate height from status cues. I could see a good control for that by maybe showing only the waist up, to cut out how long people’s legs might look.
Now, this doesn’t mean that if you’re short, you’re SOL. Far from it, in fact. It means that, if you want to appear to have higher status, confidence, and nonverbal social cues, can go a long way. Throw your shoulders back, stand up straight, and point at things! Socially dominant cues and confidence may be able to make up for some…shortcomings. If you know what I mean.
Marsh, A., Yu, H., Schechter, J., & Blair, R. (2009). Larger than Life: Humans’ Nonverbal Status Cues Alter Perceived Size PLoS ONE, 4 (5) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0005707