If you look at the couples around you, you find that most men are taller than their women. This isn’t just a coincidence, nor it is it as simple as taller is better, although the research does show some preference for taller men. What’s interesting is how women use height in gauging their attraction for men. It turns out that height, like many other factors, depends on the individual – their own physical characteristics and what they’re looking for in a mate.
Why taller men?
Let’s first start with the tendency for women to prefer taller men since this idea is a common expectation. With men being taller on average compared to women, you might expect that most women would end up with taller men just by chance. However, researchers found that of the 720 couples in their study, only one was comprised of a taller woman and a shorter man (Gillis & Avis, 1980). This was a far smaller percentage than expected by chance, showing that there is some selective preference for taller men.
It is also noted that height is a “masculine” characteristic. Taller men may be seen as more dominant and assertive (Melamed, 1992). In evolutionary terms, a larger man may have been able to provide more protection to their offspring, have greater genetic qualities to pass on to their future children, and thus may be awarded with greater social status. In line with this idea that height is an indicator of good evolutionary success, researchers found that taller men were more likely to have at least one biological child compared to shorter men (Pawlowski, Dunbar, & Lipowicz, 2000).
Culture also plays a big part in what we like and what is valued in society. Women may learn to value men who are rewarded in society. For example, taller men may be seen as more powerful and attractive, so women who are with taller men benefit by attaining a higher social status. In addition, if height signals physical dominance, it is likely that taller men make women feel smaller, protected, and perhaps more “feminine” as well. In line with this idea, research has found that women with more “traditional” gender role expectations were less willing to date shorter men (Salska, et al., 2008).
Other factors that influence height preference
So, if women have a general preference for taller men and if height is rewarding, then why aren’t we all dating basketball players? Research shows that when it comes to selecting a potential romantic partner, taller is not always better. Other factors come into play as we make choices about who we want to be with.
One factor that becomes important is women’s own height (Fink, et al., 2007). Instead of choosing the tallest of the bunch, many women use a step criteria, requiring that the men they are with are at least taller than they are (Hensley, 1994). Women do not have a exact height preference, but rather seem to be open to a variety of heights, so long as the man is taller than her.
Researchers suggest this happens to optimize our potential dating pool (Salska, et al., 2008). If we all only dated men who were 6’4” or taller, there would be so many people who were dateless, and competition for these tall men would be tough. Especially at the extremes, taller women and shorter men prefer those who are closer to their height (Hensley, 1994). Thus, knowing that there are limited resources in this area makes people more open to accepting a wider range of acceptable possibilities. On the other hand, this also suggests that women at the shorter end of the spectrum and men at the taller end can afford to be more selective in who they wish to date, since they have a wider available dating pool from which to choose.
Another important finding in how height impacts attraction are our relationship goals. One study found that women who were attracted to taller men during times of ovulation – when they were the most fertile (Pawlowski & Jasienska, 2005). Women looking for a relationship during their most fertile phase, in evolutionary terms, would be looking for good genes pass on to potential offspring but likely little parental investment and companionship. Even beyond biology, this study showed that women had a stronger preference for taller men when they were looking for a short-term relationship. In other words, height and physical attraction may be most important when looking for a fling or a casual sexual relationship.
Height isn’t everything
In general women are attracted to taller men, a preference which may be explained by evolutionary hard wiring or by societal expectations. But when choosing a man to be with, this preference is moderated by your own height, potential dating options, and relationship expectations.
Also as you might expect, height and physical traits are not enough to explain what women want, especially when looking for long-term romantic relationships. More than physical appearance, which plays mostly in short-term relationships, women value personality, intelligence, and career choice (Braun & Bryan, 2006). For dating, women look for men with agreeable personalities – men who show kindness, empathy, and intimacy, and factors like these can play a part in what women find most attractive in a man.
According to evolutionary theory, women looking for long-term relationships would want men who would stick by their side and help them provide for and take care of their infants. Thus, finding men who are agreeable, smart, and gainfully employed are signs that they will make good providers.
In sum, evolutionary theory predicts that women look for men who can provide security and protection, who can invest in their child resources in a long-term relationship or who can pass on good genes in a short-term fling. However, if you ask any woman, I’d bet she’d give a different answer…maybe someone who is kind, caring, funny, and a good kisser; maybe someone who’s smart, passionate, athletic, and honest. What theory and the many psychological studies cannot predict is what each individual woman will choose.
Braun, M. F., & Bryan, A. (2006). Female waist-to-hip and male waist-to-shoulder ratios as determinants of romantic desirability. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 23, 805-819.
Buss, D., M. (1998). The evolution of human intrasexual competition: Tactics of mate attraction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54, 616-628.
Fink, B., Neave, N., Brewer, G., & Pawlowski, B. (2007). Variable preferences for sexual dimorphism in stature (SDS): Further evidence for an adjustment in relation to own height. Personality and Individual Differences, 43, 2249-2257.
Gills, J. S., & Avis, W. E. (1980). The male-taller norm in mate selection. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 6, 396-401.
Hensley, W. E. (1994). Height as a basis for interpersonal attraction. Adolescence, 29, 469-474.
Melamed, T. (1992). Personality correlates of physical height. Personality and Individual Differences, 13, 1349-1350.
Pawlowski, B., Dunbar, R. I. M., & Lipowicz, A. (2000). Tall men have more reproductive success. Nature, 403, 156.
Pawlowski, B., & Jasienska, G. (2005). Women’s preferences for sexual dimorphism in height depend on menstrual cycle phase and expected duration of relationship. Biological Psychology, 70, 38-43.