Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes in December 2011. Photo: Getty
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Short men make better boyfriends and husbands

They’re less likely to divorce and they do an extra hour of housework each week.

Last year, Ann Friedman called on women everywhere to overthrow “the last acceptable dating prejudice” and give short men a chance. At 6’2”, she can’t restrict her dating pool to taller men, and she’s discovered that short men aren’t – shockingly – that bad: In fact, she writes, if a man is willing to go out with a taller woman, there’s a good chance he’s also secure enough to accept a woman who’s “competitive and outgoing and career-oriented”.

While Psychology Today kindly offers that women don’t “quite” see short men as “lepers”, Friedman is more accepting than most. When a 5’4” blogger added five inches to his height on his OkCupid profile, his response rate jumped from 16 to 29 per cent. In a more methodologically sound experiment, a pair of sociologists found that 48.9 per cent of women restricted their online dating searches to men who were taller than them. (Men were less picky: Just 13.5 per cent wouldn’t consider a taller woman.) Out of all 925 people, only three left the “desired height” category blank. When the same team took a survey of 181 college students, 29 per cent of women said they would feel “awkward” or “weird” dating a shorter guy, and both men and women in this sample were even more exacting about height: more than half of the women – 55 per cent – said they only wanted to date men who were taller, and 37 per cent of men said they would only go out with women who were shorter.

But a preliminary new study suggests that shorter men might actually make better partners: They do a greater share of housework, earn a greater proportion of household income, and are less likely than their taller peers to get divorced. In a working paper (it has not yet been peer reviewed), Dalton Conley, a sociologist at NYU, and Abigail Weitzman, a phD candidate, used data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics – a University of Michigan project that’s been collecting demographic data on 5,000 families for almost 50 years – to look at how a man’s height impacts different areas of his relationship after the initial dating period.

They looked at two sets of data, from 1986 and 2009, and identified 3,033 heterosexual couples. (They restricted their sample to men between the ages of 23 and 45 cohabiting with a woman.) The men ranged in height from 4’6” to 7 feet; their height, in relation to their partners', ranged from 9 inches shorter to two feet taller. They categorised the men into three groups: “Short” men were defined as 5’6” or less in 1986, 5’7” or below in 2009; “tall” men were at least 6’1” in 1986 and 6’2” in 2009.

Short men turned out to be somewhat less likely to get married: at every age before 45, they marry at a rate 18 per cent lower than men of average height. “Short men may have a harder time getting married because they’re viewed as less masculine,” says Weitzman. “Women who have traditional gender ideals may find that less desirable.” If they do find a partner, though, they’re less likely to get divorced: divorce rates for tall and average men were basically indistinguishable, but 32 per cent lower for short men. Weitzman explains this by saying that women who are “resistant” to marrying short men are more likely to “opt out” before it gets to the point of marriage: “There’s something distinct about the women who marry short men.”

Or maybe it’s just that short men make better partners. They do a greater share of housework: On average, they perform 8 hours and 28 minutes per week of housework – constituting about 28 per cent of the total – compared to 7 hours 38 minutes for average men and 7 hours 30 minutes for tall men. And they’re more likely to be the breadwinners: Conley and Weitzman estimate that 78 per cent of short men out-earn their partners, compared to 69 per cent of average men and 71 per cent of tall men. Although other research has suggested that taller men earn more – perhaps because of employers’ biases – they didn’t find evidence of income disparity among the different height groups. Tall men may be, in Weitzman’s words, “aware of the status that is conferred by their tallness” – which might make them less motivated to pitch in at home.  

Short men are more likely to partner with women who are older and less educated. Twenty-one per cent of the short men in the sample coupled with women who had not completed high school, compared with 16 per cent of average men and just 12 per cent of tall men: Overall, short men are 75 per cent more likely to couple with someone who hasn’t graduated from high school. Across the whole sample, only 9 per cent of men partnered with a woman who was more than three years older, but these men were likely to come from the short cohort. “Short men may be considered immature, and one way they could get around this threat to their masculinity would be by partnering with women who are younger than them,” said Weitzman. “Tall men don't necessarily have that same threat and may feel more comfortable partnering with women who are older than them.” That doesn’t sound so far from Friedman’s argument.

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

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Not just a one-quack mind: ducks are capable of abstract thought

Newborn ducklings can differentiate between objects that are the same and objects that are different, causing scientists to rethink the place of abstract thinking.

There’s a particular loftiness to abstract thought. British philosopher and leading Enlightenment thinker John Locke asserted that “brutes abstract not” – by which he meant anything which doesn’t fall under the supreme-all-mighty-greater-than-everything category of Homo sapiens was most probably unequipped to deal with the headiness and complexities of abstract thinking.

Intelligence parameters tail-ended by “bird-brained” or “Einstein” tend to place the ability to think in abstract ways at the Einstein end of the spectrum. However, in light of some recent research coming out of the University of Oxford, it seems that the cognitive abilities of our feathery counterparts have been underestimated.

In a study published in Science, led by Alex Kacelnik – a professor of behavioural psychology – a group of ducklings demonstrated the ability to think abstractly within hours of being hatched, distinguishing the concepts of “same” and “different” with success.

Young ducklings generally become accustomed to their mother’s features via a process called imprinting – a learning mechanism that helps them identify the individual traits of their mothers. Kacelnik said: “Adult female ducks look very similar to each other, so recognising one’s mother is very difficult. Ducklings see their mothers from different angles, distances, light conditions, etc, so their brains use every possible source of information to avoid errors, and abstracting some properties helps in this job.”

It’s this hypothesised abstracting of some properties that led Kacelnik to believe that there must be more going on with the ducklings beyond their imprinting of sensory inputs such as shapes, colours or sounds.

The ability to differentiate the same from the different has previously been used as means to reveal the brain’s capacity to deal with abstract properties, and has been shown in other birds and mammals, such as parrots, pigeons, bees and monkeys. For the most part, these animals were trained, given guidance on how to determine sameness and differences between objects.

What makes Kacelnik’s ducklings special then, as the research showed, was that they were given no training at all in learning the relations between objects which are the same and object which are different.

“Other animals can be trained to respond to abstract relations such as same or different, but not after a single exposure and without reinforcement,” said Kacelnik.

Along with his fellow researcher Antone Martinho III, Kacelnik hatched and domesticated mallard ducklings and then threw them straight into an experiment. The ducklings were presented pairs of objects – either identical or different in shape or colour – to see whether they could find links and relations between the pairs.

The initial pairs they were presented served as the imprinting ones; it would be the characteristics of these pairs which the ducklings would first learn. The initial pairs involved red cones and red cylinders which the ducklings were left to observe and assimilate into their minds for 25 minutes. They were then exposed to a range of different pairs of objects: red pyramid and red pyramid, red cylinder and red cube.

What Kacelnik and his research partner found was that the ducklings weren’t imprinting the individual features of the objects but the relations between them; it’s why of the 76 ducklings that were experimented with, 68 per cent tended to move towards the new pairs which were identical to the very first pairs they were exposed to.

Put simply, if they initially imprinted an identical pair of objects, they were more likely to favour a second pair of identical objects, but if they initially imprinted a pair of objects that were different, they would favour a second pair of differing objects similar to the first.

The results from the experiment seem to highlight a misunderstanding of the advanced nature of this type of conceptual thought process. As science journalist Ed Yong suggests, there could be, “different levels of abstract concepts, from simple ones that young birds can quickly learn after limited experience, to complex ones that adult birds can cope with”.

Though the research doesn’t in any way assume or point towards intelligence in ducklings to rival that of humans, it seems that the growth in scientific literature on the topic continues to refute the notions that human being as somehow superior. Kacelnik told me: “The last few decades of comparative cognition research have destroyed many claims about human uniqueness and this trend is likely to continue.”