The Measurement of Height
Hensley, Wayne E., Adolescence
Height appears to be an important physical attribute. In the social realm, for example, mate selection seems to rest on the male-taller principle (Beigel, 1954; Cameron, Oskamp, & Sparks, 1977; Gillis & Avis, 1980; Wilson, 1989), and being short poses some definite handicaps for males in dating relationships (Hensley, 1994). Among males, height is a factor in occupational opportunities (Hensley & Cooper, 1987), and there is evidence that this extends to later job advancements for both males and females (Egolf & Corder, 1991; Hensley, 1993). Putting the matter into dollars and cents, each inch of height seems to increase one's salary by $600, at least for males (Frieze, Olson, & Good, 1990). Moreover, the financial advantage remains at 4-6% of starting salary even after controlling for job motivation, age, family background, and educational attainment (Loh, 1993). What makes the economic figures so interesting is the consistency of the pattern. As long ago as 1968, Deck reported an 8-10% premium for the starting salaries of academics based solely on height. Moreover, the link between height and salary is not confined to the United States. Steckel (1983) found a strong and highly consistent relationship between height and per capita income in over 30 countries.
The advantages of height begin early. It has been shown that shorter schoolchildren are held back a grade more often than are their taller counterparts (Holmes, Hayford, & Thompson, 1982; Holmes, Thompson, & Hayford, 1984). In addition, self-ratings of perceived competence have been found to be related to height among adolescents (Nottelmann & Welsh, 1986). Thus, height appears to be a physical attribute that has considerable ramifications across a person's life span. Brevity may be the soul of wit, but being short is clearly no laughing matter.
As social scientists probe ever more deeply into the variables that govern the pattern of our lives, it is important that the measurement of those causal agents be precise. To that end, height has received its rightful share of attention. Research has indicated that the correlation between self-reported height and measured height ranges from .93 to .99 (Cameron & Evers, 1990; Charhey, Goodman, McBride, Lyon, & Pratt, 1976; Crockett, Schulenberg, & Petersen, 1987; Lass, Andes, McNair, Cline, & Pecora, 1982). Investigators have stated that self-reports of height provide "valid approximations" (Biro, 1980, p. 46), are "remarkably accurate" (Stewart, 1982, p. 308), that the errors are "very small" (Palta, Prineas, Berman, & Hannah, 1982, p. 229), and the biases are "small and inconsequential" (Palta, Prineas, Berman, & Hannah, 1982, p. 230). It may be that these laudatory comments were based on the fact that self-reported height yielded group means that were close to the sample mean (Tienboon, Wahlqvist, & Rutishauser, 1992). In sharp contrast, the present study focused not on measures of central tendency, but on individual errors.
Usually, glowing assessments and correlations of the magnitude reported above are sufficient to satisfy all but the most finicky critics. Only when it is realized that small variations in height may produce large differences in life outcomes does the measurement issue take on its full importance. For instance, Wilson (1968), using four groups, reported that perceived status increased as perceived height increased. The point to note is that the total difference in perception of height across all four groups was a mere 2.45 inches. Dannenmaier and Thumin (1964) also examined height and perceived status with four different groups that differed by only 4.5 inches. More recently, Hensley (1993) has shown that the academic rank of four groups of university professors was associated with height, which varied by only 1.06 inches. Thus, examination of the literature in this area makes it clear that David-and-Goliath differences are not necessary to affect life course. The trend illustrated by these studies is that small height variations have important consequences (Egolf & C order, 1991; Frieze, Olson, & Good, 1990; Hensley, 1993; Hensley & Cooper, 1987; Loh, 1993).
There appears to be a tendency for both men and women to overstate height with increasing age and decreasing level of education (Giles & Hutchinson, 1991; Stewart, 1982; Palta et al., 1982). This has prompted Pirie et al. (1981) to offer a formula to correct for these discrepancies. Certainly this is a step in the right direction and is one way to improve the measurement of height in studies utilizing self-reports (Cameron & Evers, 1990).
In addition, Pirie et al. (1981) have indicated that there is a "tendency for women to report themselves as shorter and men as taller than they really are" (p. 604). This systematic error in the self-reporting of height has also been observed among adolescents (Crockett, Schulenberg, & Petersen, 1987). These observations suggest the possibility that people may wish, when it is to their advantage, to be some height other than the one they actually are and, as if belief could make it true, their self-reports err in the direction of their desires. To offer only one example, mate selection strongly favors taller males and shorter females (Beigel, 1954; Cameron, Oskamp, & Sparks, 1977; Gillis & Avis, 1980; Wilson, 1989; but see also Hensley, 1994), and misreported height may err in the direction of greater marital opportunities for each party. If this conjecture is correct, self-reported height is a combination of actual height and desired height.
In general, people know how tall they actually are; nevertheless, their world may be colored by their dreams. If we could but discover the magnitude of these dreams, it could be subtracted from or added to self-reports to render a better approximation of reality. The investigation of this possibility is straightforward. All that is needed is to ask for self-reported height and then pose the hypothetical question, "Regardless of your current height, how tall would you like to be?" This simple question was the focus of the present research. Two topics were investigated: (1) whether the measurement of height through self-report would be improved by taking into account desired height, and (2) whether the figure obtained using the desired-height method more closely approximated actual height than that obtained with Pirie et al.'s correction formula.
The subjects were 59 American college students (average age was 20.3 years). They completed a questionnaire that included items on height and desired height. When the questionnaires were completed, a research assistant physically measured the students, who had not been told in advance that height would be checked. They were then told the purpose of the study.
No instructions were provided on whether or not shoes should be removed for measuring height. Only two students removed their shoes prior to measurement. The rationale was that the presentational self, or how a person appears to the world, is of paramount importance. That is, if a man wears lifts in his shoes, then others perceive that man as being taller than he really is; actual height is immaterial. Unlike epidemiological studies, here the presentational self was the main concern.
It has already been indicated that self-estimates probably err in the direction of desired height. This is not to say that people will note their desired height rather than their true height. It is much more likely that the self-report will lie somewhere between the two. This assumption led to the development of two correction formulas. The first is for a person whose desired height is taller than reported height: (desired height - reported height)/2 + reported height. The second formula is for a person whose desired height is shorter than reported height: (reported height - desired height)/2 + reported height. These formulas are different from those suggested by Pirie et al. (1981), whose formula for males was .93 x reported height + 4.89, and for females was .94 x reported height + 4.10.
As indicated in Table 1, the central tendency (mean) using the desired-height method was closer to actual height than was either reported height or height using the Pirie et al. method. For males, the Pirie et al. formula provided the least accurate estimate.
Perhaps the most useful data are provided by the absolute difference between measured height and results of each of the three methods-self-reported height, the Pirie et al. formulas, and the desired-height calculations. Overall, measurements using the three methods were less than one inch from true height. Before dismissing this variation as trivial, it bears repeating that a one-inch difference in height has been found to be associated with a $600 difference in starting salary (Frieze, Olson, & Good, 1990).
The closest estimate of actual mean height was provided by the desired-height correction. Thus, in the absence of physical measurement, it is recommended that this approach be used in future research.
It should be pointed out that the sample in the present study was substantially above the norm in educational attainment, and the age range was constricted. It is possible that the technique advocated here may be uniquely appropriate for American college students. Moreover, the conclusions of Giles and Hutchinson (1991), that height estimations tend to vary with actual height, age, and gender, further underscore caution.
Table 1 Height Estimates for Males (n = 25) and Females (n = 34) Males Mean SD Absolute Corr. with diff Actual hgt Actual height 71.99 2.41 - - Reported height 71.31 2.05 .68 .94 Pirie et al. method 71.21 1.91 .78 .95 Desired height method 71.93 2.08 .06 .97 Females Actual height 65.93 2.60 - - Reported height 65.05 2.75 .88 .96 Pirie et al. method 65.25 2.59 .68 .95 Desired height method 65.91 2.48 .02 .98
This caveat might lead one to conclude that American college students are too limited a population for investigations of the psychological dynamic of height. However, a substantial amount of research has relied on convenience samples of college students. As long as this pattern continues, the accuracy of measurements must be assured for this group. Consequently, the desired-height formulas would seem to be useful for future research.
Nevertheless, this method would be far more useful if it were generalizable to other age groups with differing levels of education. Such an assessment was performed. The same procedure was conducted with 48 retired community volunteers (average age was 69 years). This sample of seniors had much less formal education than did the college students, with several not having finished grade school. Thus, the two crucial elements of age and education differed greatly. Interestingly, results were not replicated.
Totally unanticipated was the emergence of a religiosity component. Many of the older subjects made such comments as, "If the Lord had wanted me to be taller, He would have made me so." The results were so uniform as to yield almost no variation at all. Virtually everyone wanted to be the same height as they reported being.
This follow-up study raises an interesting possibility. It may be that height measurement must be accomplished with a variety of tools, each suited to a particular sample (e.g., educated elderly, less educated elderly, educated midlife, less educated midlife, educated youth, less educated youth).
The data presented here indicate that the psychological experience of height differs for well-educated youth and less-educated senior citizens. If the intellectual and emotional impact of height is multidimensional, subtly shifting throughout life, then the measurement of that attribute must take such shifts into account. It is hoped that the proposed scale will be of utility in some facet of that total pattern.
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A version of this paper was presented at the convention of the Eastern States Speech Communication Association, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, April 1995.…
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Publication information: Article title: The Measurement of Height. Contributors: Hensley, Wayne E. - Author. Journal title: Adolescence. Volume: 33. Issue: 131 Publication date: Fall 1998. Page number: 629+. © 1999 Libra Publishers, Inc. COPYRIGHT 1998 Gale Group.
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