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Are Taller People Smarter?

If you are of above average height, you have something to cheer about. If research is to be believed, you are healthier and smarter, and have a better paying job! If you are used to being called "short," take comfort in the fact that, while it is a statistically significant finding, the difference in intelligence is just a tiny bit!

Short people are getting a raw deal in more ways than one. Bad enough that the basketball team or the catwalk doesn’t beckon, but now studies show that tall people score in intelligence too. Here are the tall tales research is rolling out.

The Tall Pay Check

It all started with some number crunching on how labor markets rewarded its workers. As far back as 1915, E.B. Gowin examined how the difference in height played out in the professional world. He found that in the United States, sales managers were most likely taller than the salesmen in their teams, bishops were taller than lower-order priests, and so on across many professions.1 So the taller men were wielding better positions and drawing larger paychecks. Subsequent studies across developed countries showed that taller men and women earned more than their slightly shorter colleagues.2

Every Inch Counts

While the data clearly pointed to height meaning better pay, this was attributed to multiple factors. One was self-esteem, with taller men and women figuring higher on scales that assessed personal esteem across occupations.3 Higher adolescent height also tends to lead to greater participation in sports and social activities which produce positive human capital. The researchers went one step further to say that tall boys earn more as tall men than shorter boys who caught up to become tall men.4 And, finally, there’s a bit of plain old discrimination – taller folks are simply perceived to be better performers and end up getting a better deal!5

The Bigger Picture

This puzzle still seemed to be missing something and that missing piece was cognitive ability. Studies began to focus on the broader reasons for better pay and jobs. One study pointed out that, while taller people were paid more, they were paid more not because they were taller but because they displayed higher cognitive ability or, simply, intelligence.6 Higher IQ scores also validated this.

But the connection isn’t all that hard to decode. After all, what does one’s height depend on? Being tall is surely not a matter of mere luck – it is determined by a mix of genetic and environmental factors, with the uterine health of the mother, nutrition, and threats posed by disease being the most significant criteria that affect growth and height.7 Also, certain biological influences also play a part. Insulin-like growth factors impact body growth and affect those parts of the brain where cognition occurs.8 Even the thyroid hormone, which stimulates growth, has a role to play in neural development.9

The Height Trinity

So to cut a long story short, it does seem that taller folks have a very slight leg up when it comes to cognitive ability. This was well articulated by a study from Edinburgh that rounded off the discussion. The researchers presented an almost triangular equation, pointing to a “modest genetic correlation” between height and intelligence. Healthy kids (due to genetic disposition and environment) are usually taller kids, and healthy kids are also usually more intelligent (by virtue of receiving the right nutrients and triggers for brain development). So, taller kids may indeed be smarter kids – but remember, it’s just by a teeny-tiny fraction of an inch!10

References   [ + ]

1. Gowin, E. “The executive and his control.” New York: Macmillan. 1915.
2, 6. Case, Anne, and Christina Paxson. Stature and status: Height, ability, and labor market outcomes. No. w12466. National Bureau of Economic Research, 2006.
3. Lechelt, Eugene C. “Occupational affiliation and ratings of physical height and personal esteem.” Psychological reports 36, no. 3 (1975): 943-946.
4. Persico, Nicola, Andrew Postlewaite, and Dan Silverman. The effect of adolescent experience on labor market outcomes: the case of height. No. w10522. National Bureau of Economic Research, 2004.
5. Loh, Eng Seng. “The economic effects of physical appearance.” Social Science Quarterly (1993): 420-438.
7. Silventoinen, Karri. “Determinants of variation in adult body height.” Journal of biosocial science 35, no. 02 (2003): 263-285.
8. Berger, Abi. “Insulin-like growth factor and cognitive function.” BMJ 322, no. 7280 (2001): 203.
9. Richards, Marcus, Rebecca Hardy, Diana Kuh, and Michael EJ Wadsworth. “Birthweight, postnatal growth and cognitive function in a national UK birth cohort.” International Journal of Epidemiology 31, no. 2 (2002): 342-348.
10. Marioni, Riccardo E., G. David Batty, Caroline Hayward, Shona M. Kerr, Archie Campbell, Lynne J. Hocking, David J. Porteous, Peter M. Visscher, Ian J. Deary, and Generation Scotland. “Common genetic variants explain the majority of the correlation between height and intelligence: the generation Scotland study.” Behavior genetics 44, no. 2 (2014): 91-96.

Disclaimer: The content is purely informative and educational in nature and should not be construed as medical advice. Please use the content only in consultation with an appropriate certified medical or healthcare professional.