Home > Pattern Recognition > Good news for tall people! You’re perceived as thinner!

Good news for tall people! You’re perceived as thinner!

Tall woman and short man

People say all the time that tall people look thinner. Being tall and thin is valued in our society and because both traits are valued they are most likely related, where one could affect the other.  We often hear that tall people look thinner. Is this a real illusion or just an urban myth?

Before we move on, let me define perception for you. When you perceive things, you are essentially organizing, identifying, and interpreting information gathered from your different senses. A lot of perception, however, is driven by expectations and prior knowledge. This means that what you expect to see and what you already know influences what you actually perceive.

Beck, Emanuele, and Savazzi (2013) recently published an article exploring this question of how height and width influence perception. They conducted three experiments to see if height influences how people judge width (whether tall bodies are perceived as thin and short bodies are perceived as wide). They also investigated whether width influences how people judge height (whether thin bodies are perceived as tall and wide bodies are perceived as short).

In their first experiment they showed participants two images of human bodies and asked them to either decide which was taller or which was wider (see below for a sample stimuli). For half of the participants, the two bodies were different heights on all the trials, and on 1/3 of the trials, the critical trials,  the width was the same. Participants were asked to select which body was wider. For the other half of the participants, the two bodies were always different widths, and on the critical 1/3 of the trials, the height was the same. Those participants were asked to select which body was taller on each trial. The experimenters measured participants’ preference for one image over the other on the critical trials, in which one dimension (height or width) was the same.

13423_2013_454_Fig1_HTML-e1399049743175

The experimenters found that participants did in fact consider the taller body as narrower and the shorter body as wider! They also found that the illusion goes the other direction as well, meaning participants assessed the narrower body as taller and the wider body as shorter, although this effect was not a great as the other illusion. So, what does this all really mean? Well, it means that humans perceive tall people as thinner and short people as wider. This a fortunate illusion for some, and an unfortunate one for others (i.e. short people like myself)!

The experimenters wanted to further investigate this illusion and whether it could be seen with objects as well as bodies (see below for a sample of the stimuli used). So, for their second experiment, they used rectangles instead of bodies. Everything else about the experiment was the same. They found the same result with rectangles, however, the illusion was not nearly as strong as it had been with bodies. Why would that be?

13423_2013_454_Fig2_HTML-e1399045749522

The researchers explored, in their third experiment, whether the level of depth and detail the bodies had, in comparison to the rectangles, contributed to this difference between bodies and shapes. To assess this, they followed the same experimental design as before, but used silhouettes of bodies (no depth or detail) and shaded cylinders (added depth and detail) (see below for a sample of the stimuli used). Their results showed the same illusion as before, but it was much stronger for the silhouettes of the bodies than the shaded cylinders. So, it is not detail or depth that caused the illusion to be stronger with bodies than shapes.

13423_2013_454_Fig3_HTML-e139904577568513423_2013_454_Fig3_HTML1-e1399045810751

So, why is this illusion so much greater for bodies than for shapes? The authors examined some similar illusions, trying to explain why they got the results that they did. But, none of the explanations really fit and  it is still largely unknown why there is this difference. One possibility, however, is that our experiences in the world influence how we perceive human bodies. As we know, perception is driven by expectations and prior knowledge. Because our culture values tall and thin bodies, we may perceive bodies differently than other objects, based on height and width. Future research should explore if this illusion is still present for actual, three-dimensional bodies, to see how relevant this illusion is to real life.

To read the full study, click here.

References

Beck, D. M., Emanuele, B., & Savazzi, S. (2013). A new illusion of height and width: Taller people are perceived as thinner. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 20, 1154-1160. doi: 10.3758/s13423-013-0454-8.

Categories: Pattern Recognition Tags:
  1. April 29th, 2014 at 22:09 | #1

    I really enjoyed this article and found it really interesting. Living in a society today where people that are tall and thin are considered more beautiful than the rest is not something that is easy for the people that are not so tall or thin. I’ve always found it interesting that 2 of my friends could be the same height but one could seem taller. I had never thought about how their width could effect how I perceived them though.
    I found it very interesting that even with the dimensions of the rectangles being added and it only being the silhouette of the person, this effect was stronger with the human body. I think this really shows the power that social media has over how we perceive people in society these days. I wonder if there would have been such a strong correlation in a different decade. I also think it would be really interesting if there was a difference between men and women and how they perceive the people.

  2. April 30th, 2014 at 09:18 | #2

    Just so you know, some of your pictures didn’t show up on my computer! I also thought this was a really interesting and real world relevant article. It explains my inclination to wear heels so often (I’m really short). I thought your consideration on why our perceptions of bodies are more distorted than our perception of objects was very thought provoking. My one criticism is that I could use more discussion about the findings from each experiment to reinforce what they found each time. Your blog post makes me wonder the extent to which media exposure exerts an influence on different types of perception? I know in class we discussed how the majority of Americans incorrectly assumed that we found weapons of mass destruction when invading Iraq, and that in other countries this effect was lessened potentially due to the different types of media exposure in each country. It is interesting to me that the media might be able to not only influence our memory for past events, but our day to day perception of bodies. I wonder whether or not media exposure to images of models might moderate the effect that the researchers found? Overall, very interesting post!

  3. October 7th, 2014 at 12:49 | #3

    Just as the others have mentioned i found this article very interesting because of its real world applications. I am particularly interested in the potential role that motivation plays in many cognitive processes and applications, and this seems to play a large role in this article as well. Because we have these expectations to look at taller people in a certain way, aka skinnier way, it must be motivated by what we consider to be an ideal as a society. This is similar to another article that we read in class by Harrison and Hole (2009), in which it was determined by the experimenters that people attend to certain faces based off of their motivation to do so. I think that this could be applicable in this sense as well in that people are motivated to believe that tall people are skinnier because that is what society deems as fitting, and therefore that is what we as individuals deem as fitting as well.

  4. October 17th, 2015 at 20:00 | #4

    While reading this post, I found my mind returning to many concepts we mentioned in class about face recognition. We talked about the two possibilities for why we are so good at facial recognition. One of the explanations offered was that of perceptual expertise, which suggests that we are so good at recognizing faces because due to our social nature, we have a desire to recognize faces. When we practice it often, we become experts at it. I think this also applies to the illusion mentioned in this post. We also most likely have a desire to recognize bodies (what if a person’s back was to you so you couldn’t see their face? You would want to be able to recognize them without needing them to turn around). In this way we also become “body experts” and use top-down processing to categorize the bodies we see. Because of our expectations of height being associated with thinness, we perceive taller things as thinner. This may be in part due to our “expertise” for body recognition.

  5. October 18th, 2015 at 21:29 | #5

    I found this post very interesting! As I read about how the illusion seems to be independent of the object’s depth, but dependent on its shape (the human body), I immediately thought about how we seem to recognize human faces in a different manner than objects. In a paper written by Harrison and Hole (2009), the authors found that we better recognize certain types of faces when we are more motivated to do so and are more frequently and recently exposed to those faces. This conclusion supports the contact hypothesis of face recognition. As I read your post, I thought that we as humans are highly motivated to recognize the body types of our peers, more so than many other objects, so we can identify them very well in day-to-day life. Also, we see human bodies more frequently, or just as frequently as many other objects in the environment. Perhaps this is why we experience this illusion to a greater effect in human bodies than in other objects, regardless of depth. Perhaps we are better at recognizing the shapes, heights, and widths of human bodies rather than other objects because we are more frequently exposed to them and motivated to do so. Therefore, we pick up on this illusion to a greater effect when it comes to human bodies.
    In addition, as I read your post I also thought about how top-down processing could play a role in this illusion. As we discussed in class, top-down processing is when our expectations and experiences influence our perceptions of things. It is very common in everyday life (i.e. real life, TV, advertisements) to see tall people who are skinny and short people who are more stout. However, it is just as common to see a wide, tall rectangle and a short, thin rectangle. Therefore, since we have these more specific experiences and expectations regarding the height and width of humans, more so than we do with other objects, perhaps top-down processing plays a significant role in causing us to see perceive images of tall humans as thinner and short humans as wider. Our expectations of tall humans being thinner and vice versa are greater than our expectations of other tall objects being thinner and vice versa.

  6. RRRobbie
    October 19th, 2015 at 19:54 | #6

    I like your way of writing that connect the research and real life experiences closely, creating a very interesting blog so that normal readers without psychology background would enjoy. The research shows that people do consider shorter people with the same width as the taller people to be wider. This follows people’s normal perspective about the others’ appearance. The blog leaves a sort of open-ended question about why people’s perception of appearance shows this phenomenon. One possible explanation that comes to my mind is that people consider others’ height and width as a unified whole rather than two separate factors. They may interpret them together to form a ratio between the height and width, and derive from the ratio to form the perception. I would like to see whether inversion effect might occur in this case, because it is inversion effect that proves face recognition as a special case in pattern recognition. I suspect that the phenomenon discussed in this blog is also the result of a kind of configural process, such that inversion effect may disrupt the configural process and give some explanations.

  7. October 21st, 2015 at 13:35 | #7

    I really liked how seamlessly you linked the science with actual environmental perception when dealing with the illusion that taller people appear thinner. I always just thought that taller people typically were thinner, and that there was no illusion that made me think that way. This article showed me another way that motivation plays a role in cognitive processes. As a society, it is common to perceive a tall and thin body as the ideal body type. So when we see a tall person, we automatically see them as thinner because that is the ideal body that we perceive. I also think that top-down processing plays a large role in this illusion. Since we so often see tall and skinny people in the media, we automatically relate tall people to being thin because it is what our mind is used to seeing. Very interesting article!

  8. October 22nd, 2015 at 12:59 | #8

    The second I read the title of this blog my mind wandered to two distinct classes of tall thin people; runway models and male basketball players (even though male basketball players are also muscular). This made me question why I associate these people with having the “skinniest” body type. I found this blog to be very informative as I thought about depth and perception from what we have learned in class. It made me think about how we use our vision to help us make judgments of the size and distance of objects and people. It also made me think about the role of top-down processing in how we perceive things. The Ponzo illusion, as described in my Cognitive Psychology textbook by Dawn McBride and Cooper Cutting, explains why two cats of the same size are perceived as different sizes when placed on a linear perspective railroad track. In the illusion, people perceive the cat on the top (in the distance of the railroad track) to be much bigger than the one on the bottom (the closest cat on the track to the viewer) even though they are the same exact size. This distortion of image that is captured on our retina, forces us to use other cues to determine why one cat appears bigger. These cues come from our previous knowledge and knowledge of linear perspective. So because of our prior knowledge, we know that this image of railroad tracks get smaller the further in the distance it is so we know that a cat would not be bigger than a railroad track even though it is perceived that way. According to this blog, I know that models are supposed to be tall and thin and so are male basketball players. That is why I perceive them as thinner than people who are shorter than them even if they are both the same width. What we expect that we will see and what we know about that stimulus ultimately influences our perceptions.

You must be logged in to post a comment.