Kick The Hobbit

My 23-year-old nephew is a nice guy, a college grad with a good job who’s a loving pet owner. The women in the family love his ironic mustache, his tattoos, and his way of making people laugh, but the men, including my husband, tend to see him in a negative light. I struggle to understand why they think so little of him. But maybe that’s it: My nephew’s not a big guy. He’s maybe 5-foot-6, and while that’s not terribly short, my family skews tall, with all the other men 6-foot-3 and over. From reading evolutionary theory in your books and columns, I’m wondering, might these men subconsciously dislike him because he’s small? If so, is there any way to get them to see him in a better light?
— Concerned Aunt

Your nephew sounds like a good guy who’ll eventually be some lucky woman’s three-fourths and only.

You’re on to something about height affecting our evaluation of other people. Evolutionary researchers Gert Stulp and Abraham “Bram” Buunk observe that, across cultures, “taller stature” is linked with higher social status, and historically, “The term ‘big man’ has been used to denote an individual of both high social status and physical stature.”

In fact, the researchers explain, because physical dominance was the primary path to power for much of human evolutionary history, “it seems likely that ‘big men’ experienced increased social status” because of their “physical superiority in competition with others.” In other words, though taller doesn’t always equal stronger, in general, the bigger the bro, the bigger the beatdown he could dispense.

Today, physical dominance is still the currency of power in really scary neighborhoods (including scary cellblocks). However, a garden gnome-sized man can make up in stacks of thousand-dollar bills the leverage he’d have from physical stature. And recall that would-be duel from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” with some huge creep brandishing a giant scimitar at Harrison Ford — who simply draws his gun and shoots the guy. Likewise, the local Goliath might be no match for a well-armed Mr. Stubby.

However, though we’re living in modern times, the psychology currently driving our behavior is seriously antique, calibrated for the hunter-gatherer way back when. In our modern world, it often leads us to behave in unnecessary and even counterproductive ways. Our psychological response is typically subconscious, so, for example, we might sometimes think less of somebody less-than-towering without understanding why.

This could explain some of the findings Stulp and Buunk cited. Even in “contemporary, industrialized society,” tall people rule, achieving “greater levels of upward social mobility.” This is seen even when a taller person and a shorter one are siblings with a shared environment (researcher-speak for growing up in the same home). Additionally, from childhood on, “Height may also affect how people perceive themselves, and so influence behavior” (in turn influencing how other people perceive and treat them).

Though prior research finds perceptions of a person’s dominance and high status are related to height, Stulp and Buunk’s team explored the influence of height on people’s behavior. For example, in a narrow pedestrian passageway, they observed that both taller men and taller women were more likely to storm forward unyieldingly, forcing shorter pedestrians to give way and let them pass. Likewise, on a crowded shopping street, when a shortie was coming from the opposite direction, people were less likely to step aside, which resulted in the shorties having more collisions.

After I had you do “homework,” asking your male relatives whether they dislike your nephew, and if so, why, you came back on a positive note. They told you they don’t dislike him; in fact, they say they like him. They just seem to talk trash about him over his attitudes about money. For example, your husband goes “on and on” about how the nephew’s paying too big a monthly nut for his new truck.

Maybe this triggers fears in your husband that he’ll be asked for money if the guy loses his job, and he’s just venting. And going back to the evolutionary well, gossip is sometimes used as a form of signaling. Perhaps your husband and other men in the family OMG-ing about the big bucks for the truck are ultimately promoting themselves as fiscally wiser.

You do say the older dudes in the family don’t have such a harsh attitude about other (taller) young nephews who are less responsible and together than the travel-sized one. So, maybe there is diminished respect for him because of his shorter stature. It’s really impossible to do more than loosely speculate. All in all, you probably don’t need to worry about your nephew, because he sounds happy and well-adjusted. Over time, I suspect the men in your family will come to realize that some stories just aren’t complete without the little guys. (Consider: “Snow White and the Seven Los Angeles Lakers.”)

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