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The Psychology of Height

 

Explanations > Perception > The Psychology of Height

Threat | Superiority | Protection | Positivity | Perspective | Size | Intensity | Language | So what?

 

Height is a curiously pervasive metaphor that affects many of our decisions without us realizing it.

Height as threat

When one person is taller than another, they are more likely to win a fight. They have a longer reach and the length of their limbs makes a wide swinging punch more painful. They can rain blows down on us that are hard to defend against (and if we raise our arms we expose our torsos). Human height also implies reach, so a taller person can reach a smaller person who cannot reach back.

We know instinctively the threat from taller people, and, while our civilized world means we can walk out safely, we cannot help but be cautious around them.

We may also be cautious around tall things that may fall on us, from trees to rocky outcrops and anything above that seems unstable. Claustrophobia is a related fear where we feel enclosed spaces may collapse in on us.

Cowering, hunching down and lowering our heads, is an instinctive response to a height threat. If a branch from a tree feel on us, it is better to take it on the back rather than the head. The cower response can also be seen when people feel threatened by others.

Yet there are benefits to being smaller. A shorter person is less of a threat and may be challenged less. A smaller body needs less food and survives famines better. Shorter people are more agile and can hide more easily. A short body also has less gravitational force on it and shorter people are less liable to skeletal problems.

Height as superiority

Generally, we consider high things to be better. Taller people on the whole are seen as more attractive and more persuasive, and they get more promotion. It is not only people. Tall buildings and high mountains are somehow better than the lower ones nearby.

When we feel superior, we look down on other people. We even do this literally, tilting our heads back so we can look down our noises and fool ourselves that we are taller than we really are. In research, powerful people were found to over-estimate their own height (and vice versa).

If you are not tall, being higher up helps. A king sits on a raised dais, indicating his superiority. SUVs let the owners look down on other drivers. Expensive penthouses are situated at the top of buildings.

Feeling inferior has the opposite effect as we hunch down and hold down our chins so we effectively look up at the other person. This is a classic flirting pose that says 'Oh you are so powerful'. It also appears in shame where a person lowers their status, taking a child position as they physically beg forgiveness.

The inferiority that shorter people feel is compounded when others subtly act in superior ways, and they may over-compensate, becoming aggressive to cover up the inferiority they feel (this is known as the Napoleon Complex).

Height is also a relative thing, where a bit higher means a bit better and much higher is much better. The relative height metaphor can be seen in images of heaven and hell. Not only is heaven above and hell below, but heaven is so superior it is far above, and hell is so bad it is far below. In fact nothing is higher that heaven and nothing lower than hell.

When people feel confident, they straighten their backs, hold up their heads and 'stand tall'. Even if they are smaller than others they may feel taller. When we stand erect, we send a signal that we are unafraid. This may dissuade potential attackers.

To use physical height in changing minds, stand erect or get to a higher position, where others have to look up to you. Act confidently and they will think you even taller.

Height as protection

The notion of height can make us feel safe as well as as fearful. When the higher thing is protective, when it is a shelter our nurturing parent, it feels comforting.

Evolution has made men generally taller than women and they are seen as more attractive mates, partly because they seem likely to offer more protection, for both her and her children.

Sheltering height an intermediate cover, an umbrella that protects us from something even higher. It enclosed us, like a womb. Our houses and beds are like this. While they have layers higher than us, they make us feel warm and safe as they hold back the higher threat.

Height as protection requires a deep trust, as the taller parent or house could come crashing down on us at a moment's notice, giving us no time for escape. Taller people hence need to be particularly gentle to avoid any threat response.

Height as positivity

High can be a good thing, for example when we talk about things 'looking up', or when people talk about 'being on a high' (and not necessarily caused by ingested chemicals). At the opposite end of the scale, we talk about being 'on a downer'. It can even be seen in the way people gaze -- when they are depressed, for example, we are more likely to look downwards.

In such use, the vertical direction is used as a barometer of positive feelings. More generally this may even be a measure of arousal, so someone who is 'flat' is not feeling anything in particular.

When we are aroused we typically are happy being more visible to others, which physical height produces. When we are unhappy, we may physically hunch down in a way that others may not notice us. In this way, via happiness, height is also about social connection.

Height as perspective

When you are high up, you can see a long way. This gives a further metaphor for height which can be seen in talk about the'10000 foot view' or 'helicoptering' as a process of gaining a 'high level view'.

Built into this principle of a high level perspective is the trade-off of scale for detail. When you look down on something from above, you see the broad lay of the land and the relationship between large structures, but in doing so the finer details get lost as they merge together into a background texture.

The same effect happens in the metaphor, for example where upper management understands the high-level picture of their organizations, but miss the messy low-level detail. This can be a recipe for conflict when not seeing things leads to simplified and impractical assumptions. The reverse is also true as having your head in the weeds can blind you to the high-level strategy.

Height as size

Height is only one of the three dimensions, but its significance for us is so great it is often the dominant dimension in determining overall size. When we say 'That is big!' we tend to mean it is tall. Children in particular easily measure volume using height disproportionately. Having said this we still use 'big' to describe wide people, but only as a euphemism to avoid calling them fat.

This can be used in changing minds by emphasizing height when you want to emphasize amount. For example show a single, tall pile of money, rather than several smaller piles, to make it seem like a lot of money. And vice versa, of course.

Height as intensity

Height can also indicate intensity of some kind. This may often indicate emotion, but can indicate any other amplification.

We talk of high winds. People take narcotics to short cut to a sensory high. We say 'It's high time' that something happened. We note that people are highly regarded.

The physical feeling of being high can give a sense of exhilaration and wonder, such as when you stand atop a mountain.

Intensity increases emotion, even if the subject is not directly emotion. Any rising tone can do this, even a rising line, lifting feelings as it goes up. This can be used in changing minds to wind up and so engage the other person.

Height in language

Height appears in language that reflects the above metaphors. We talk about the upper class, people in high office, moving up the career ladder, and so on.

Height words include: Above, below, low, high, highly, over, oversee, overhang, tall, up, and so on.

As above, you can use height words to show superiority, indicate strategic understanding and intensify emotions.

So what?

Stand tall when persuading others or at least sit erect. Being confident will also enhance the sense of your height, and standing tall will make you feel more confident. If you want to appear superior, tilt your head back and look down your nose (though beware of reactions to this).

Otherwise use the height metaphor whenever you want to achieve any of the above effects.

See also

Using Body Language

 

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