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Short men are indirectly aggressive toward taller men, study finds

The study shows when the 'Napoleon complex' is most likely to emerge.

Napoleon Bonaparte painting

Artist: Andrea Appiani
  • A recent study examined the Napoleon complex through economic games.
  • The results showed that shorter men are more likely than taller men to keep a disproportionate amount of resources for themselves, but only when the other player can't retaliate.
  • The study suggests that the Napoleon complex is most likely to manifest in situations where the shorter man has all the power.

In the early 19th century, Napoléon Bonaparte was perhaps best known for leading successful military campaigns and serving as the Emperor of the French for nearly a decade. But today, the ruthless French leader is probably best remembered in the popular imagination for his short height, a trait that inspired what many now call the Napoleon complex.

The Napoleon complex is a popular belief that describes an inferiority complex in which short men tend to compensate for their small stature through behavior, such as increased aggression or gossiping. From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that short men might try to compensate; research shows that tall men are more likely to hold positions of power, attract mates and be perceived as higher status by their peers.

A new study published in the journal Psychological Science uses economic games to examine the Napoleon complex, providing some of the first results on the importance of height in competition between men.

In an economic experiment called the dictator game, participants were asked to divide a sum of money between themselves and an unseen opponent. Each participant could divvy up the money however he wished. Interestingly, the participants who tended to keep the most money for themselves in this version of the game weren't necessarily shorter—they were people who reported that they often felt small.

The researchers then conducted the same game in a competitive setting, in which two male opponents met face to face, had their heights recorded and read aloud (along with other physical and strength measurements), and were asked to enter separate cubicles. Again, the participants had to divide a sum of money. The allocator could choose to give any amount, or nothing, to his opponent, who was the receiver. The researchers told the participants that one person would play the allocator and the other would play the receiver, but in reality every participant played the allocator.

The results showed that, on average, relatively shorter men kept more money for themselves.

Next, the participants played an ultimatum game in which an allocator divides a sum of money, keeping some of it and offering a portion of his choice to the receiver. But if the receiver perceives the offer to be unfair, he can reject it and both parties get nothing.

Unlike the dictator game, height didn't seem to play a significant role in influencing how much money participants chose to keep in the ultimatum game.

In another experiment, two male opponents once again played a dictator game. This time, however, each participant also had to choose an amount of hot sauce their opponent would have to consume, which was, in theory, a measure of aggression. But the results showed that shorter men were not significantly more likely to make their opponents eat more hot sauce.

Men show flexible behavior in competitions

The study suggests that shorter men are more likely to show indirect, rather than direct, aggression toward taller men in competitions for resources. For shorter men, the researchers wrote that these indirect strategies represent safer options than physical combat. Also, the results suggest that the Napoleon complex is most likely to manifest in situations where the shorter man has all the power, and the taller man can't retaliate.

"The results imply that participant height is most important in predicting competitive behaviors in an absolute-power situation (the dictator game), regardless of opponent height," the researchers wrote. "This is not surprising as shorter and taller men likely have different life experiences that may influence their decision making in behavioral experiments."

It's not just competitions between men that bring out the Napoleon complex, the researchers noted.

"In terms of underlying mechanisms, the Napoleon complex may also be shaped by intersexual selection forces—shorter men could use behavioral strategies to impress females, such as risk taking, generosity, or showing commitment (e.g., Griskevicius et al., 2007; Iredale, Van Vugt, & Dunbar, 2008)."

The researchers suggested it'd be interesting to see whether men would behave differently in these kinds of economic games if an attractive female were also involved.

"For further studies, it would be of great interest to add a potential mating opportunity to the paradigm to see how intersexual competition affects the Napoleon complex. The presence of an attractive female could exacerbate other kinds of overcompensating behaviors in short men—for example, an increased propensity toward risk taking to impress women."

The study, "The Napoleon Complex: When Shorter Men Take More", was authored by Jill E. P. Knapen, Nancy M. Blaker, and Mark Van Vugt.

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If you don't practice accountability at work you're letting the formula for success slip right through your hands.

  • What is accountability? It's a tool for improving performance and, once its potential is thoroughly understood, it can be leveraged at scale in any team or organization.
  • In this lesson for leaders, managers, and individuals, Shideh Sedgh Bina, a founding partner of Insigniam and the editor-in-chief of IQ Insigniam Quarterly, explains why it is so crucial to success.
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What if Middle-earth was in Pakistan?

Iranian Tolkien scholar finds intriguing parallels between subcontinental geography and famous map of Middle-earth

Could this former river island in the Indus have inspired Tolkien to create Cair Andros, the ship-shaped island in the Anduin river?

Image: Mohammad Reza Kamali, reproduced with kind permission
Strange Maps
  • J.R.R. Tolkien himself hinted that his stories are set in a really ancient version of Europe.
  • But a fantasy realm can be inspired by a variety of places; and perhaps so is Tolkien's world.
  • These intriguing similarities with Asian topography show that it may be time to 'decolonise' Middle-earth.
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Giant whale sharks have teeth on their eyeballs

The ocean's largest shark relies on vision more than previously believed.

An eight-metre-long Whale shark swims with other fish at the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium on February 26, 2010 in Motobu, Okinawa, Japan.

Photo by Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • Japanese researchers discovered that the whale shark has "tiny teeth"—dermal denticles—protecting its eyes from abrasion.
  • They also found the shark is able to retract its eyeball into the eye socket.
  • Their research confirms that this giant fish relies on vision more than previously believed.
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A massive star has mysteriously vanished, confusing astronomers

A gigantic star makes off during an eight-year gap in observations.

Image source: ESO/L. Calçada
Surprising Science
  • The massive star in the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy seems to have disappeared between 2011 and 2019.
  • It's likely that it erupted, but could it have collapsed into a black hole without a supernova?
  • Maybe it's still there, but much less luminous and/or covered by dust.

A "very massive star" in the Kinman Dwarf galaxy caught the attention of astronomers in the early years of the 2000s: It seemed to be reaching a late-ish chapter in its life story and offered a rare chance to observe the death of a large star in a region low in metallicity. However, by the time scientists had the chance to turn the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal, Chile back around to it in 2019 — it's not a slow-turner, just an in-demand device — it was utterly gone without a trace. But how?

The two leading theories about what happened are that either it's still there, still erupting its way through its death throes, with less luminosity and perhaps obscured by dust, or it just up and collapsed into a black hole without going through a supernova stage. "If true, this would be the first direct detection of such a monster star ending its life in this manner," says Andrew Allan of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, leader of the observation team whose study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

So, em...

Between astronomers' last look in 2011 and 2019 is a large enough interval of time for something to happen. Not that 2001 (when it was first observed) or 2019 have much meaning, since we're always watching the past out there and the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy is 75 million light years away. We often think of cosmic events as slow-moving phenomena because so often their follow-on effects are massive and unfold to us over time. But things happen just as fast big as small. The number of things that happened in the first 10 millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, for example, is insane.

In any event, the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is far way, too far for astronomers to directly observe its stars. Their presence can be inferred from spectroscopic signatures — specifically, PHL 293B between 2001 and 2011 consistently featured strong signatures of hydrogen that indicated the presence of a massive "luminous blue variable" (LBV) star about 2.5 times more brilliant than our Sun. Astronomers suspect that some very large stars may spend their final years as LBVs.

Though LBVs are known to experience radical shifts in spectra and brightness, they reliably leave specific traces that help confirm their ongoing presence. In 2019 the hydrogen signatures, and such traces, were gone. Allan says, "It would be highly unusual for such a massive star to disappear without producing a bright supernova explosion."

The Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is one of the most metal-poor galaxies known. Explosive, massive, Wolf-Rayet stars are seldom seen in such environments — NASA refers to such stars as those that "live fast, die hard." Red supergiants are also rare to low Z environments. The now-missing star was looked to as a rare opportunity to observe a massive star's late stages in such an environment.

Celestial sleuthing

In August 2019, the team pointed the four eight-meter telescopes of ESO's ESPRESSO array simultaneously toward the LBV's former location: nothing. They also gave the VLT's X-shooter instrument a shot a few months later: also nothing.

Still pursuing the missing star, the scientists acquired access to older data for comparison to what they already felt they knew. "The ESO Science Archive Facility enabled us to find and use data of the same object obtained in 2002 and 2009," says Andrea Mehner, an ESO staff member who worked on the study. "The comparison of the 2002 high-resolution UVES spectra with our observations obtained in 2019 with ESO's newest high-resolution spectrograph ESPRESSO was especially revealing, from both an astronomical and an instrumentation point of view."

Examination of this data suggested that the LBV may have indeed been winding up to a grand final sometime after 2011.

Team member Jose Groh, also of Trinity College, says "We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local Universe going gently into the night. Our discovery would not have been made without using the powerful ESO 8-meter telescopes, their unique instrumentation, and the prompt access to those capabilities following the recent agreement of Ireland to join ESO."

Combining the 2019 data with contemporaneous Hubble Space Telescope (HST) imagery leaves the authors of the reports with the sense that "the LBV was in an eruptive state at least between 2001 and 2011, which then ended, and may have been followed by a collapse into a massive BH without the production of an SN. This scenario is consistent with the available HST and ground-based photometry."


A star collapsing into a black hole without a supernova would be a rare event, and that argues against the idea. The paper also notes that we may simply have missed the star's supernova during the eight-year observation gap.

LBVs are known to be highly unstable, so the star dropping to a state of less luminosity or producing a dust cover would be much more in the realm of expected behavior.

Says the paper: "A combination of a slightly reduced luminosity and a thick dusty shell could result in the star being obscured. While the lack of variability between the 2009 and 2019 near-infrared continuum from our X-shooter spectra eliminates the possibility of formation of hot dust (⪆1500 K), mid-infrared observations are necessary to rule out a slowly expanding cooler dust shell."

The authors of the report are pretty confident the star experienced a dramatic eruption after 2011. Beyond that, though:

"Based on our observations and models, we suggest that PHL 293B hosted an LBV with an eruption that ended sometime after 2011. This could have been followed by
(1) a surviving star or
(2) a collapse of the LBV to a BH [black hole] without the production of a bright SN, but possibly with a weak transient."

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