(written 11/8/03) A few weeks ago, I read an article on Yahoo that caught my eye because the headline mentioned claimed that tall people earn more. In particular, “Tall people earn considerably more money throughout their lives than their shorter co-workers, with each inch adding about $789 a year in pay, according to a new study.” As I’m 6’3″, this amused me and I sent it off to a few of my shorter friends who reacted with the expected grumpiness.
But after thinking about it some more, I don’t buy it. I don’t think that height matters so much that I earn $10k a year more than a friend of mine with the same capabilities that’s 5’3″. That just doesn’t sound right to me. And I came up with a theory that I think probably explains most of it, and doesn’t seem to have been addressed by the researchers, who, at least according to that article, only controlled for gender, weight and age.
I would expect that height correlates with childhood nutrition. I’m going mostly based off of my own experience here, but with my mother being 5’2″ and my dad being 6′ if he stretches, it’s not entirely in line with genetics for me to be 6’3″ and my sister to be 5’8″. My mom has always preached the importance of meat and milk for kids, and considering the way my sister and I grew, I don’t think she’s wrong. I think that one’s genetics pre-specify a range of possibilities, but where in that range you fall may have a lot to do with what you’re fed and how much exercise you get as a kid.
Extending that further, I would also expect that childhood nutrition correlates with mental development. In terms of evolution, the brain is a luxury and is way overpowered compared to what it needs to be for mere survival. So I would guess that if one is undernourished as a kid, the body gets most of the nutritive value and the brain is starved. It’s only when you have a surfeit of nutrition that the brain gets fully nourished. Note: I’m not a nutritionist, I’ve got less than zero expertise here, I’m just guessing. But it makes sense to me.
So my theory is that people with height tend to have had more privileged childhoods. They got more to eat, they probably had better schools, and generally had a better chance in life. If the study had controlled for childhood socioeconomic status, I suspect the observed differentials in salary would be drastically reduced. In fact, I was intrigued enough to go to the UFL press release on the study, and send an unsolicited email to one of the authors with this theory. We’ll see if anything comes of it.