Thursday, 10 September 2009

Tall stories

A study called Life at the Top: The Benefits of Height has been widely reported in the media with headlines like Tall People Lead 'Better Lives' and Taller People Make Better People. However, it is - of course - a bit more complicated than that.

I should declare an interest from the outset - I am a shade over six feet tall.

The study, by Deaton and Arora in Economics and Human Biology looked at phone survey data (in America) from over 454,000 adults who were asked their height and to evaluate their lives on a ladder scale. Top of the ladder is 'the best possible life for you' and bottom is 'the worse possible life for you'.

They found that, overall, people who are above average height (5'10" for men and 5'4" for women) put themselves higher on the ladder than people below average height. The finding applied to all demographic and ethnic groups. The difference is more marked between tall and short men than it is with women.

Tall people reported that they experience more enjoyment and happiness, less pain and sadness.

However, they reported more stress and anger; taller women also worry more. There is a noticeable increase in the stress levels reported by tall people, with tall women suffering more. So life is not all rosy for lankies.

There is, the study reports, a very close correlation between height, income and education although the reasons for this are not known. Income has strong beneficial effects on all outcomes, it says. It would appear that it's not being taller per se that makes people happier but the benefits that accrue from it.

The fact that tall people earn more has been known for some time, so there's nothing new there. A real weakness of the survey is that people were asked during just one phone call how they had felt on the previous day - which is very unlikely to give an accurate assessment of how they feel about their lives in general.

The research does not uncover if there is a cut-off point beyond which increasing height gives diminishing happiness returns. For example, one man had his job offer as an air traffic controller withdrawn when it was found that, at 6'10", he was too tall to fit under the fixed desk. Beyond a certain height, buying clothes becomes difficult and expensive, there is never enough leg room, desks and beds don't fit, back ache and joint problems become common and regular people start to act like they're at a freak show. None of this contributes to general contentment.

Interestingly, one finding of the research is that people who put themselves right at the top of the ladder and say their lives are 'the best possible' are slightly shorter than average. Deaton and Arora say that perhaps the 8% of people at the top 'are different in some other respect'. Newspaper headlines can ignore them but they are annoying outliers that spoil the nice clean results and cannot be glossed over.

In fact, the Telegraph, Express, Mirror and Mail do ignore them. Brownie points to the BBC for including them.

So the conclusion is that taller people are happier with their lives than most short people, but not all of them and not in all areas. In other words, being tall is a bit of a mixed blessing. Probably. No shit, Sherlock.

Here's a summary of the article:

This is what we'd like our study to show.

Methodology - fingers crossed you won't spot the flaws.
Here's how we read the data. Oops, some bits don't really fit the theory. Or the title.
Ooh look, a table.
Damn, an annoying outlier.
Ooh look, a graph.
Here's some stuff everyone already knows.
Ooh look, another graph.
Here's someone's theory that might support ours. Or not.

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