Height as a Basis for Interpersonal Attraction

By Hensley, Wayne E. | Adolescence, Summer 1994 | Go to article overview

Height as a Basis for Interpersonal Attraction


Hensley, Wayne E., Adolescence


American society appears to operate on the basis of a series of unstated yet pervasive social rules in date/mate selection. Not the least of these implicit criteria is the male-taller bias. The unwritten law of social interaction seems to be that the male must be at least as tall or taller than the female in order for any meaningful relationship to develop (Cameron, Oskamp, & Sparks, 1977; Martel & Biller, 1987; Graziano, Brothen, & Berscheid, 1978). As a case in point, Gillis and Avis (1980) calculated that the male should be shorter than the female in 2 of every 100 couples based on random chance. Their data showed this configuration actually occurred only once among 720 couples, thus, it is abundantly clear that the male-taller bias is in full operation, but what is not clear is the psychological selection process used in abiding by this "Cardinal principle" of date selection (Berscheid & Walster, 1974). On what basis do males select shorter females and how do females select taller males? At least two different techniques are apparent.

First, it is possible that there is a comparative standard by which one's own height serves as the anchor. Females, for example, would favor males who are two or three inches taller than themselves. Males, on the other hand, would favor females two or three inches shorter than themselves. This selection rule would produce a complementary partner. Widely followed, the complementary selection rule would produce a uniformity of couples. Knowing the height of one partner would enable an observer to predict the height of the other partner. Complementarity should produce a fairly strong relationship between one's own height and the height of one's chosen partner.

However, it is possible that a far less complex standard could be involved. Females using a simpler standard might find any male acceptable as long as he were as tall or taller than themselves. Males might accept any female as long as she were as tall or shorter than themselves. This selection rule operates on a simple step function. Even though the male is still taller than the female among such couples, the differences between them is now more haphazard. Using the step function, a weak but still positive relationship should exist between one's own height and the height of one's chosen partner.

However, both of these hypothesized selection rules may be confounded by the failure to distinguish between what is desirable and what is obtainable. Hence, both selection techniques must be examined for the real and the ideal situation.

Turning to a related question of date/mate selection, there is a logical possibility that because of the male-taller bias, a distinct social advantage should be observable for taller males (Martell & Biller, 1987; Lerner & Moore, 1974). Indeed, in a field study such a finding has been suggested (Feingold, 1982) when it was observed that as the height of the male increased, so did the attractiveness ratings of his girlfriend. But another study seems to suggest that women are more attracted to men of medium height (5'9" to 5'11"") than to either short or tall men (Graziano et al., 1978). Thus, an additional purpose of this study was to investigate the presumed social advantage for tall men.

By extension of the same logic, it should also be the case that shorter females would enjoy a social advantage in the date/mate situation. By being short, the female becomes a socially appropriate partner for a much larger pool of males than does her taller counterpart. Thus, height alone should enhance the short females' dating/mating prospects in the social marketplace.

In sum, this study sought to examine the complementary vs. the step function in the selection of the ideal and real dating partner. Second, the presumed social advantages for tall males and short females in interpersonal interaction situations were examined.

METHOD

Subjects in this study (N = 594) were volunteers from communication classes taught at a large mid-Atlantic university. …

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