Why Do We Love Tall Men?

This excerpt is from the part of Blink where I talk about the things that throw off our powers of rapid cognition. I’ve just been talking about a test–called the IAT–which measures your level of “unconscious prejudice.” That’s the kind of prejudice that you have that you aren’t aware of, that affects the kinds of impressions and conclusions that you reach automatically, without thinking.


Or what if the person you are interviewing is tall? On a conscious level, I’m sure that all of us don’t think that we treat tall people any differently from short people. But there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that height–particularly in men–does trigger a certain set of very positive, unconscious associations. I polled about half of the companies on the Fortune 500 list–the largest corporations in the United States–asking each company questions about its CEO. The heads of big companies are, as I’m sure comes as no surprise to anyone, overwhelmingly white men, which undoubtedly reflects some kind of implicit bias. But they are also virtually all tall: In my sample, I found that on average CEOs were just a shade under six feet. Given that the average American male is 5’9″ that means that CEOs, as a group, have about three inches on the rest of their sex. But this statistic actually understates matters. In the U.S. population, about 14.5 percent of all men are six feet or over. Among CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, that number is 58 percent. Even more strikingly, in the general American population, 3.9 percent of adult men are 6’2″ or taller. Among my CEO sample, 30 percent were 6’2″ or taller. The lack of women or minorities among the top executive ranks at least has a plausible explanation. For years, for a number of reasons having to do with discrimination and cultural patterns, there simply weren’t a lot of women and minorities entering the management ranks of American corporations. So today, when boards of directors look for people with the necessary experience to be candidates for top positions, they can argue somewhat plausibly that there aren’t a lot of women and minorities in the executive pipeline. But this is simply not true of short people. It is possible to staff a company entirely with white males, but it is not possible to staff a company without short people: there simply aren’t enough tall people to go around. Yet none of those short people ever seem to make it into the executive suite. Of the tens of millions of American men below 5’6″, a grand total of ten–in my sample–have reached the level of CEO, which says that being short is probably as much, or more, of a handicap to corporate success as being a woman or an African-American. (The grand exception to all of these trends is American Express CEO Kenneth Chenault, who is both on the short side (5’9″) and black. He must be a remarkable man to have overcome two Warren Harding Errors.)

Is this a deliberate prejudice? Of course not. No one ever says, dismissively, of a potential CEO candidate that ‘he’s too short.’ This is quite clearly the kind of unconscious prejudice that the IAT picks up. Most of us, in ways that we are not entirely aware of, automatically associate leadership ability with imposing physical stature. We have a sense, in our minds, of what a leader is supposed to look like, and that stereotype is so powerful that when someone fits it, we simply become blind to other considerations. And this isn’t confined to the corporate suite. Not long ago, researchers went back and analyzed the data from four large research studies, that had followed thousands of people from birth to adulthood, and calculated that when corrected for variables like age and gender and weight, an inch of height is worth $789 a year in salary. That means that a person who is six feet tall, but who is otherwise identical to someone who is five foot five, will make on average $5,525 more per year. As Timothy Judge, one of the authors of the study, points out: “If you take this over the course of a 30-year career and compound it, we’re talking about a tall person enjoying literally hundreds of thousands of dollars of earnings advantage.” Have you ever wondered why so many mediocrities find their way into positions of authority in companies and organizations? It’s because when it comes to even the most important positions, we think that our selection decisions are a good deal more rational than they actually are. We see a tall person, and we swoon.