Though standing at a height of only 5 feet, Sara Watson is making some tall statements about the relationship between height and support for politically conservative parties.
A recent study conducted by Watson, an assistant political science professor, and Raj Arunachalam of Bates White, LLC., a Washington-based economic consulting firm, found a relationship between height and political preference among United Kingdom residents, which suggests that taller people are more likely to support the Conservative Party. The findings were published in the pair’s paper, “Height, Income and Voting.”
The result came from a study analyzing the relationship between economic well-being and voting habits, said Watson.
“We were reflecting on the fact that there are all of these formal models or theoretical models in political economy, which start from the assumption that income drives your political preference,” Watson said. “Surprisingly, when you look at empirical studies, evidence is kind of mixed. So sometimes some studies find that income matters for your political beliefs and then other times it doesn’t seem to matter very much at all.”
Watson and Arunachalam’s research builds off literature in fields such as anthropology and modern economics that analyze the positive correlation between height and economic well-being.
“At the same time, there’s also some literature in modern economics looking at modern labor markets which look at height, and here the finding has been that taller people basically earn more money,” Watson said. “Even when you control for education and skill and all of that, taller people basically earn a premium in the labor market.”
The findings on height support the idea that income has an effect on voting preferences, which is important because this is an idea upon which a lot of economic and theoretical models are built.
“There are some very prominent theoretical models in political economy which basically start from the assumption that income drives your political behavior and then they move on from there,” Watson said.
This research helps to support those models by showing the positive correlation between height and Conservative Party support, and also height and income.
Moreover, Watson said “if you don’t have access to decent income data, but you have access to height, you can still kind of use it as a measure of income or of economic well-being.”
There are several reasons income data alone proves problematic to analyze — income fluctuates from year-to-year, the way in which information about income is gathered can be prone to response bias, and the survey could be worded poorly, Watson said.
“Really what we would want to have is a measure of someone’s permanent economic well being. And so that was how we hit upon height,” Watson said.
Height, unlike income, is a concrete measurement and it generally shows little to no variation throughout an adult life.
Height proved to be a useful measurement for Watson and Arunachalam. Using data from the British Household Panel Study, which contains a broad range of data from about 5,000 households since 1991, they were able to conclude that in the United Kingdom there is a significant correlation between height and support for the Conservative Party.
“If you’re an individual who’s between the 10th and the 90th percentile (for height), then each additional inch of height that you have is going to increase the probability of voting Conservative by about 0.6 percent,” Watson said.
Watson and Arunachalam added another layer to the study by analyzing the entire sample, as well as dividing by sex.
“If you separate the sample into men and women, the effect is about twice as strong for men. So, for men, it’s 0.8 percent and for women it’s 0.4 percent,” Watson said.
Part of Watson’s confidence in her findings stems from the detailed nature of the survey from which she gathered data. The BHPS takes into account detailed income data, height — which was measured by nurses for accuracy — and political preferences. It’s fairly rare to get data for all three of these areas in one survey, Watson said.
Despite her findings, Watson stressed that voting behavior is still a complicated issue.
“I wouldn’t want to claim that height is the only factor to know, but no matter what we controlled for, it didn’t go away,” Watson said. “We found that there’s an effect and we think it’s substantial, but by no means does it explain everything.