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Does Our Height Influence Our Mental Health? Experiment in virtual reality shows that reducing a person's height can increase feelings of vulnerability and raise levels of more
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Shorter people shouldn't despair. You're only as small as you feel | Anne Perkins Research suggests a strong connection between self-esteem and relative height. But we tall people don't always have towering confidenceThe average British male is 5ft 10in and will tell you that he's about 5ft 11in, while the average woman is 5ft 4in and will probably apologise for it. That last thought's guesswork, but the rest is fact, or at least a well-sourced Wikipedia entry. How tall we are, according to new research by the clinical psychologist Prof Daniel Freeman, correlates closely with how confident we feel. Freeman is interested in the relationship between paranoia and a sense of inferiority. In his experiment his subjects were fooled by virtual reality into thinking for part of the time they were surrounded by people taller than themselves. It showed there was a strong connection between being small, or at least smaller than the people around you, and feeling small, between the perceived physical reality and the internal emotional reaction.There are obvious evolutionary reasons for feeling safer when you're bigger than the likely opposition. But it's aeons since the brain triumphed over brawn when it came to getting hold of power and keeping it. Yet we are still apparently conditioned to regard taller people with the kind of respect that comes from an atavistic fear that they might thump us, and it's so persistent that tall people, it is claimed, get better jobs, earn more and generally have a better time of it than their shorter brothers and sisters.Until a generation or so ago, there was definitely a class thing going on. In the mid-18th century, the difference between officer recruits (always upper class since joining the army took more ready cash than most people saw in their lifetimes) and the ordinary soldier was an astonishing 7.5in. Even in 1950 there was still a three-inch difference between manual and non-manual workers. But that doesn't quite explain Freeman's results, which were about confidence, and anyway there are plenty of people around who aren't tall doing very well thank you, including those whose appearance is at least part of their work, such as actor Daniel Radcliffe.Film is particularly adept at blurring the difference. Size matters only where it is relative. It seems obvious: you can't feel small when you are taller than everyone in the room. Wrong. Speaking as a taller than average 5ft 8.5in, you can. Or at least I could as a tall child in a single-sex school, perpetually stooped in an attempt to make eye contact with my friends, always taller than the rest of my class. Except then feeling small was actually feeling tall, being different – wearing glasses and having a mortifying tendency to knock things over – and not in a good way. What I most wanted in life was to be able to do a backflip like my lithe best friend. Playing Romeo because I was tallest was not really compensation.Yet that discrimination may be at the heart of it. It's not that tall people feel superior, or more effective, or demand to be talked to with particular deference. It's just how shorter people treat them. For a start, you literally have to look up to the taller person. And the taller person has to look down. Tall people get more space because they take more space. Maybe that reads across into their attitude to life. But maybe the tall person isn't taking an advantage. They're being given it. Just like the people in the experiment.No one can make you feel inferior without your consent, Eleanor Roosevelt once said. Somehow, it seems significant that Mrs Roosevelt was 5ft 11in.PsychologyAnne © 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds
The height of confidence (and a little paranoia) | Daniel Freeman and Jason Freeman How a virtual reality experiment could help to treat people with paranoid symptomsHow tall are you? How tall would you like to be? And how tall do you tell other people you are?Most of us – and especially men – tend to exaggerate our height, adding a centimetre or two when we think we can get away with it. This is understandable: ours is a culture that valorises the tall and belittles, as it were, the short. As a result, being tall brings with it a host of advantages.The taller you are, for instance, the more likely you are to go on to higher education. This is true even after controlling for cognitive ability, suggesting that some kind of subtle – indeed unconscious – bias may be operating among educators. Being tall is also associated with career success: in fact it has been estimated that a person who is six feet tall is likely to earn around £100,000 more over the course of a 30-year career than someone who is five foot four. And as if this weren't sufficient, being tall is likely to help in your romantic life too: altezza mezza bellezza, as the Italians say – height is half of beauty. Thus taller adolescents of both sexes typically date more than their shorter peers, and tall men are more likely to find a long-term partner, or indeed several. (It's not all roses for the tall, however: they are more likely to be bitten by midges.)Given that tall people appear to have the world at their feet, insect bites notwithstanding, it's hardly surprising that they also enjoy certain psychological benefits. For males in particular, height seems to be linked to greater happiness and self-esteem (though some studies suggest that the effect is modest), and a markedly reduced rate of suicide.Doubtless these psychological advantages stem in part from the pervasive tendency to associate height with power. That tendency is embedded in our language: we "look up" to people we consider superior; those without influence are the "little people". Height is taken as an index of leadership ability: among US presidential candidates, for example, the tallest usually wins the popular vote (though not necessarily the presidency). Taller presidents stand a better chance of being re-elected. And presidents tend to be much taller than average for men of their age. Moreover, we don't merely assume the tall are powerful; when we feel more powerful ourselves we tend to overestimate our height.If height and self-esteem are so enmeshed, what are the psychological consequences of feeling smaller than usual? That was the question we set out to explore in a recent experiment. Our hunch was that the experience would cause people to view themselves more negatively, reducing their sense of status and self-esteem, and triggering a sense of vulnerability. And, because these psychological traits play a major part in paranoia, we wanted to see whether lowering a person's height would change the way they viewed other people's intentions towards them. (Clearly there are times when it's sensible to be wary, but the term paranoia denotes unjustified fear.)How can someone experience the same situation from differing heights? We opted for immersive virtual reality. In collaboration with computer scientists we recruited 60 women from the general population. These women, like 50% of all individuals, had recently experienced a mistrustful thought, but had no history of severe mental illness. (Being tall has advantages for both men and women, but there are minor differences, and so we decided to test a single-sex group.) We asked the volunteers to take a simulated tube train journey wearing virtual reality headsets. While they walked around in the VR world, the sounds of a typical platform and tube journey – the rumble of the train, the hum of other passengers' conversations – were played to the participants through headphones. And as normal in the tube, there were plenty of other people around: in this case computer-generated avatars.Virtual reality had two great attractions for us. First, even though you're wearing a VR headset and headphones, your mind and body will respond as if the scenario were real. Second, by programming the avatars to behave in a strictly neutral fashion, we knew that any sense the participants had of their fellow passengers being hostile was unjustified and hence evidence of paranoid thinking .The participants took the virtual tube journey twice: once at normal height and once with their perspective altered to mimic how the scene would look if they were about a head's height shorter (the order of journeys was randomised). The results were dramatic: when they felt smaller, the participants reported increased feelings of inferiority, weakness, and incompetence. And this explained why they were also more likely to experience paranoid thoughts: for example, that someone in the carriage was being hostile or trying to upset them by staring.We didn't tell the participants that we'd lowered their height, and very few noticed. "It felt different in the two times. I felt more vulnerable the first time [lowered condition], and also the man with the legs in the aisle was acting in a hostile way towards me the first time, but I didn't feel it so much the second time, even though his legs were in the same place, I don't know why!" was a typical comment. Another participant remarked: "I felt more intimidated the first time [lowered condition], not sure why. There was a girl who kept putting her hand to her face, the man with the blue T-shirt was shaking his head at me, they were staring more at me."What does this experiment tell us about how to combat paranoia? (It's worth noting, incidentally, that paranoia is much more common than traditionally assumed: around one in five people experience these kind of thoughts on a regular basis, though only a much smaller number suffer from serious persecutory delusions.) Well, it confirms that paranoia is rooted in a sense of inferiority. In situations that make us feel especially small and unconfident our sense of vulnerability can increase, making it more likely that we'll overestimate the danger facing us from other people.From this it follows that by helping someone to feel more positively about themselves we may be able to reduce their susceptibility to paranoid thoughts (this is an intervention we're currently testing). Virtual reality could be an asset here: if simulating a decrease in height lowers self-esteem, then the opposite may be true too. By allowing people with problematic paranoia to feel taller in VR social situations, we may be able to boost their confidence in the real world. Because although we can't do much about our actual height, we can certainly learn to feel taller. And when it comes to boosting self-esteem, that may make all the difference.Daniel Freeman (6' 2") and Jason Freeman (6', perhaps) are the authors of Paranoia: The 21st Century Fear, published by Oxford University Press. Daniel Freeman is a professor of clinical psychology, and a Medical Research Council (MRC) senior clinical fellow, in the department of psychiatry at the University of Oxford, and a fellow of University College, Oxford. Jason Freeman is a psychology writer. On Twitter they are @ProfDFreeman and @JasonFreeman100.PsychologyHuman biologyMedical researchDaniel FreemanJason © 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds
Height perception and paranoia Experiment in virtual reality shows that reducing a person's height can increase feelings of vulnerability and raise levels of paranoiaExperiencing the world from lower down than usual can increase how mistrustful and paranoid people feel, according to research in a virtual world.Scientists believe that feelings of persecution were triggered when people lost height and suffered a fall in self-esteem, which led them to see themselves as inferior and more vulnerable.The findings could help researchers develop more effective psychological treatments for severe paranoia, through simulations that let patients confront and overcome their delusions.Scientists at Oxford University recruited 60 adult women who had reported feelings of paranoia in the month beforehand. Each donned a virtual reality helmet and took two virtual tube rides, complete with computer-generated passengers that nattered around them.While most of the women sensed there was something strange about one of the rides, few realised this was down to the scientists lowering their height, and so their point of view, by around 30cm.To see how the change in perspective affected the virtual passengers, the researchers asked the women to fill out two questionnaires before and after the rides. One measured how well the women felt they compared to others, such as being more or less talented, or more or less attractive. The second questionnaire provided a paranoia score by asking them to rate statements like "someone had it in for me" on a scale from one to five.The results, published in the journal Psychiatry Research, show that the women's social comparison scores fell on average from 60 to 52 when they saw the world from lower down. At the same time, their paranoia scores rose from 12 to 14."When you are lower down than normal, it makes you feel more inferior to other people, and that I think makes you feel more vulnerable, and that's what leads you to see hostility where there isn't any," said Daniel Freeman, a professor of clinical psychology who led the study."It's not saying that short people have greater levels of paranoia, it's about what happens when your own normal height is reduced in social situations," he added.Freeman said the work could help researchers to find better ways to treat paranoia by boosting people's self-esteem. One way might be to artificially raise their height in a virtual world to give them more confidence than normal, and gradually reduce it. One unknown is how long the effects last for.Willem-Paul Brinkman, who works on virtual reality therapy for people with mental health problems at Delft University in the Netherlands, said the work added to other studies that show that giving people taller avatars in a virtual world made them more confident negotiators, while giving them a more attractive avatar made them more intimate towards others.Brinkman said the latest study showed the potential for VR to treat patients whose paranoid thoughts interfered with their daily life. "Giving therapists the ability to put patients in a VR environment and discuss these thoughts when they are actually experiencing them, could be very beneficial. At the moment, therapists have to rely on the patient's recollections of these experiences."The challenge, he said, was to find triggers to provoke feelings of paranoia. The ethnicity of an avatar might be one trigger, but changes to a person's height could be another. "These triggers might affect individuals differently, so it would be good to offer therapists a number of them so they can tailor it to the needs of the patient," Brinkman said.PsychologyMedical researchIan © 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds
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