SCIENCE

There's A Strange Link Between Height And Political Conservatism

Hint: Bill O'Reilly is not a short man.

08/18/2016 10:24 am ET
Compassionate Eye Foundation/Paul Bradbury/OJO Images Ltd via Getty Images

If you’ve ever suspected that wealthy Republicans look down on other people ― well, you might be on to something.

Recent research involving surveys of people in the U.K. suggests that taller people are more likely to hold certain politically conservative views, and to vote for right-wing politicians. 

“If you take two people with nearly identical characteristics ― except one is taller than the other ― on average the taller person will be more politically conservative,” Sara Watson, co-author of the study and an assistant professor of political science at The Ohio State University, said in a press release. 

Watson, together with co-author Raj Arunachalam, senior economist at the economic consulting firm Bates White LLC, published the findings in the British Journal of Political Science in June.

What could possibly explain such a strange correlation? The answer might lie with income.

“Our findings may seem unusual at first, but we think that the fact that height predicts political preferences is driven by the fact that taller people generally earn more,” Watson told The Huffington Post.

It’s true: Taller people are often likely to be paid more than their shorter colleagues. According to one analysis, one extra inch is linked to roughly $800 in greater annual earnings. (if this seems surprising, remember that people are treated, promoted and compensated differently in the workplace for all kinds of arbitrary and unfair reasons.)

Many studies have found evidence of a ‘height premium,’” Watson said. “There is evidence from a wide range of countries and historical settings that taller individuals are economically better off.”

And the rich have a tendency to vote conservative. As Watson and Arunachalam note, each additional 1,000 pounds of annual income among the voters they analyzed was linked to a 2-3 percent increase in the likelihood of supporting the U.K.’s Conservative Party.

The researchers checked for other factors that could explain the link between height and political preference, but income seemed to be the key variable.

“Our findings stood up even after we investigated whether the effect of height on politics could be explained through other channels, including race, years of schooling, cognition, health care utilization and so on,” Watson said. 

In fact, it was income and its effects on voting behavior and political leanings that were of interest to the researchers. But people’s income can fluctuate over time, so they turned to height as a more stable metric.

“We were aware of work in anthropology and economic history, where scholars have long used height as a proxy for economic well-being, as well as work about the height wage premium in contemporary labor markets,” said Watson, adding that being only 5 feet tall herself has made her particularly interested in that research. “I thought it unfair that shorter people seem to pay a penalty in the labor market.”

The researchers found that among U.K. voters, a one-inch increase in height translates to a 0.6 bump in support for Conservatives. It also increases the likelihood of voting Conservative by about the same amount.

That means, say, that if we compare someone who is shorter than 90 percent of people to someone who is taller than 90 percent of people, we would find the taller person to be 10 percent more likely to vote Conservative. This is not a trivial increase, Watson said, but of course it still leaves a lot of the variation in political beliefs unexplained.

The U.K.’s Conservative Party, obviously, isn’t totally synonymous with small-c conservatism as Americans understand it. In the U.S. alone, there are fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, limited-government conservatives, neocons and so on, as well as combinations of all of the above.

Still, Watson and Arunachalam found that tall Brits tend to hold at least a few views that would sound agreeable to many U.S. Republicans. The taller people in their study tended not to agree with the idea that public services and industries ought to be under state ownership, or that the government ought to place an upper limit on earnings.

The data used in the study came from the British Household Panel Survey, which involves about 10,000 adults in the U.K. and includes self-reported data about height, income, political beliefs and voting behavior. The researchers used a British database because it included detailed information about all of these variables.

But the findings may not only apply to British people. “We have no theoretical reasons to think that the results would not extend to the U.S.,” Watson said. 

Still, people are complex animals, as Watson is quick to point out. You can’t just assume that someone’s income or their height will be a perfect predictor of their political views. Unless Ant-Man decides to weigh in on the presidential election, we may never truly know.

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