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Science Explains Why Short Guys Are Not Actually Aggressive Jerks

There's no such thing as a Napoleon complex, a new study confirms.

Universal Pictures

The notion of the Napoleon Complex, or the idea that short men are more likely to be aggressive, is not real. But that doesn’t mean smaller people aren’t predisposed to other traits, and a surprising new study suggest that shorter men may be more likely to be stingy with money. Social scientists suspect that’s because short guys have historically had fewer resources than taller men and are not trying to be assholes. They’re trying to survive.

“Previous research mostly shows that taller people act more dominantly and aggressively, and the idea of a Napoleon Complex where shorter men act more dominantly has much evidence against it,” coauthor on the study Nancy Blaker, who studies power dynamics and behavioral economics at the University of Otago, told Fatherly. “Our research basically tried to create a very specific situation where the general roles would be reversed and the shorter person would show more dominance toward a taller person.”     

The need to adapt may not be completely in short men’s heads. A disproportionate amount of CEOs have been found to be 6′ or taller and short men generally make less money than tall men. There’s also evidence that short men are more susceptible to jealousy and at a greater risk of dying from heart disease. One notable study of 119,669 men and women attempted to clarify this by comparing the 396 genetic variants that determine height to a person’s actual height. They found that, when men were genetically predetermined to be three inches shorter than another man, their annual incomes were about $1,600 lower, and less likely have skilled or professional jobs. Still, few experiments have looked at how this potential disadvantage might shape shorter men’s interactions with others.

“We decided to create a competitive situation between two men, who were introduced as each others’ opponents, to see how height would influence how they behaved towards each other,” Blaker said. So they surveyed 60 men and women about their height, as well as whether they ever “feel small.” Then participants were instructed to play an economic game where they were given coins, and told they could leave behind as many as they wanted for other participants whose identities were not disclosed. Data indicated that men who felt the smallest kept the most money, whereas women who felt the smallest did not.

A second experiment involving 42 men confirmed this, by pairing the men up once against the other. Men withheld the most when height disparities were the highest between opponents, and shorter men still kept the most coins, overall. A third experiment involving 164 men had them play the same game, but this time each man could express aggression by forcing their opponent to drink a shot of hot sauce. Short men were not more likely to administer hot sauce to their opponents, in line with prior research. 

“The notion of a Napoleon Complex is on the whole not backed by science,“ Blaker says. “Many other studies show how taller men may act more dominantly or aggressively across a variety of situations.” Besides, judging a man by his height is not a great look—let alone good science.

“I would actually strongly urge others not to judge men on the basis of their height.”