Short men are indirectly aggressive toward taller men, study finds

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

  • 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.

LinkedIn meets Tinder in this mindful networking app

Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.

Getty Images
Sponsored
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.

No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.

Keep reading Show less

4 reasons Martin Luther King, Jr. fought for universal basic income

In his final years, Martin Luther King, Jr. become increasingly focused on the problem of poverty in America.

(Photo by J. Wilds/Keystone/Getty Images)
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Despite being widely known for his leadership role in the American civil rights movement, Martin Luther King, Jr. also played a central role in organizing the Poor People's Campaign of 1968.
  • The campaign was one of the first to demand a guaranteed income for all poor families in America.
  • Today, the idea of a universal basic income is increasingly popular, and King's arguments in support of the policy still make a good case some 50 years later.
Keep reading Show less

Why avoiding logical fallacies is an everyday superpower

10 of the most sandbagging, red-herring, and effective logical fallacies.

Photo credit: Miguel Henriques on Unsplash
Personal Growth
  • Many an otherwise-worthwhile argument has been derailed by logical fallacies.
  • Sometimes these fallacies are deliberate tricks, and sometimes just bad reasoning.
  • Avoiding these traps makes disgreeing so much better.
Keep reading Show less

Why I wear my life on my skin

For Damien Echols, tattoos are part of his existential armor.

Videos
  • In prison Damien Echols was known by his number SK931, not his name, and had his hair sheared off. Stripped of his identity, the only thing he had left was his skin.
  • This is why he began tattooing things that are meaningful to him — to carry a "suit of armor" made up the images of the people and objects that have significance to him, from his friends to talismans.
  • Echols believes that all places are imbued with divinity: "If you interact with New York City as if there's an intelligence behind... then it will behave towards you the same way."
Keep reading Show less