Why are highly educated people taller?
The taller you are, the more likely it is that you are highly educated. But folks with less education are catching up, according to a new study.
We are all getting taller, in general. But those with less education are catching up with people who have studied many years at a university.
“The difference in height between these groups has decreased,” says Sondre Haakonson Arntsen.
Everyone is getting taller...
Arntsen is doing his PhD in Tromsø in Northern Norway on the relation between body height and social inequality in health. But over the past few decades, height has played a role in education, too.
“Among people in Tromsø born between 1930 and 1977, height has increased for both sexes,” Arntsen said.
The starting point for his research is information from 31,000 participants in a large population study called the Tromsø Study.
He has then compared education levels between different groups.
The extremes, both in terms of height and education, are found in people who have gone into work after completing primary school and those who have gone on to study four years or more at university.
… but academics have grown the least
“Among those born in the 1930s, the height difference between these two groups was 4.3 centimetres for men and 5.1 centimetres for women. In the 1970s, this difference had dropped to 2 centimetres for men and 3 centimetres for women,” Arntsen said to sciencenorway.no.
It turns out that academics have maintained a stable average height, while the rest of the population has grown taller over the years.
Improvement in living conditions?
Arntsen cannot say for sure why this is so.
“But we speculate that improved living conditions have played a role,” he says. It also turns out, not surprisingly, that people participating in the Tromsø Study have become more and more highly educated as the decades have gone by.
“Height is something you achieve long before your education. So we rather think that height is still an indicator of socio-economic status,” Arntsen said.
This might mean that people with good incomes have traditionally been taller. They also more often have a higher education. In other words, it’s not your height that matters the most for whether you pursue higher education. It’s your background.
A recent study on bones from medieval burial grounds found something similar to Arntsens modern-day study: those of high social status had been taller, and the differences were greater for women than for men.
Leaders are taller
Body height is also related to work. Managers and people who earn the most are also taller than the average.
“But I have not seen any recent research that compares that trend over time,” said Øyvind Lund Martinsen, Head of the Department of Leadership and Organizational Behaviour at BI Norwegian Business School.
“The last thing I saw on this topic was a British study from last spring with 248,000 participants. It looked at genetic influences on becoming a leader versus becoming something else. The study identified a set of genes that are related, and which have an influence on personality, intelligence and body height,” Martinsen said to sciencenorway.no.
Tall and dark
Martinsen talks about dominant leaders as being a ‘tall and dark’ thing, but also about the leader as a professional expert.
In working life he believes that leadership also has something to do with people literally looking up to their manager:
“Height conveys a sense of security. It can also relate to dominance and other factors. There are some evolutionary relationships here, because there is no research which suggests that taller people are more skilled than others,” Martinsen said.
Sondre Haakonson Arntsen et.al.: Time trends in body height according to educational level. A descriptive study from the Tromsø Study 1979–2016. Plos One, 2023.
Translated by Nancy Bazilchuk.