A colleague and I were having a casual conversation at the office one day, when an associate’s name was mentioned. My colleague unabashedly quipped, “I don’t like him. He has little man’s disease.”
This comment came as a bit of a shock. First, the man was only a few inches shorter than your humble writer (what does she think about me?). The man she labeled with the Napoleon Complex was probably 5’ 8.5” or 5’ 9” tall; I’m 5’ 10.5” tall; and, the average height for an adult male in the United States is around 5’ 9.5” tall. Frankly, I didn’t consider him to be short. In fact, he would tower over the average Peruvian man who stands at just 5’ 4.5” tall.
Second, I found it interesting that she, an African American woman who had experienced prejudice and discrimination based on being a member of two different stereotype groups, would have a stereotype bias for someone else based on an inherited, uncontrollable trait—height. The man didn’t choose his height.
In the months and years after that conversation, I began to notice how often people freely and openly refer to shorter men as having a Napoleon Complex. In fact, I heard it referenced at a gathering just last night. Short men seem to be the last remaining group where it is perfectly acceptable to publicly admit a stereotypical bias against them. If you want to understand how stereotypes work, this is a perfect group to study because it’s out there in the open.
In order for a stereotype to “survive,” it requires three things: stereotype threat, self-fulfilling prophecy and justification. These elements are to stereotypes what water, shelter and food are to humans.
The term “complex” is probably the most aptly named word in psychology. It refers to the complex emotional response to a traumatic experience. Psychologist Carl Jung referred to complexes as the “building blocks of the personality.” We all have them and they impact our everyday lives. Unfortunately, complexes can greatly distort our perception of reality and affect our ability to think rationally.
The term complex has been around since the days of Freud and Jung and has become a popular psychological expression for mainstream Americans. Most of us recognize these complexes: Messianic/Redeemer, Oedipus, Don Juan, Lolita, Superiority, Inferiority and the list goes on. Anything that can produce a traumatic experience can lead to a complex, so the list is endless.
That leads us to the Napoleon Complex. This complex refers to a short male that compensates for his lack of stature by exhibiting aggressive behavior. This person may also be ambitious, self-confident and crave power.
The term, of course, was named after the French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte—the charismatic military leader who rose to power during the French Revolution. At the height of his empire, Napoleon ruled most of Europe, so he was clearly ambitious, self-confident and a man who craved power.
Fittingly, the perception that Napoleon was short is a myth. In fact, the ruler was around 5’6” – 5’7” tall, which was about the average height (if not a little taller) of a Frenchman in the early 1800’s. Bonaparte was given the nickname the “Little Corporal” earlier in his military career due to his success as a lower ranking officer and probably humble beginnings, not in reference to his height. As he rose to prominence, he employed tall personal guards, which made him look short by comparison. The English and Russians perpetuated the myth of his supposed diminutive stature in order to demean the French leader. In fact, Tolstoy went so far as to describe Napoleon as a small man with small hands. Thus Napoleon became the poster child for the inferiority complex of short men.
The question is… why do we find it unacceptable for a man of smaller stature to exhibit assertive, ambitious and self-confident behavior?
First, there are the social dynamics of being a mammal that we automatically and unconsciously establish a hierarchy of dominance any time two or more people gather. Like the animal kingdom, in our world the dominant one tends to be the largest.
Tall men display leadership qualities because their imposing physical stature provides a sense of security and protection for their followers. According to Dr. Susan Krauss, tall men tend to have higher self-esteem, are happier and are less likely to be jealous of others. These characteristics are associated with confidence and we like to follow confident people and conversely we avoid following people who lack confidence.
Height has traditionally been an indicator of health, wealth and status. As Harvard professor Nancy Etcoff wrote in Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty, “The genes set the upper limit of growth, but its acquisition is determined by life conditions. With better nutrition, height has steadily increased in this century, particularly for the upper classes, who have been taller than the lower classes in every country since the late eighteenth century…. Relatively greater height within a population suggests tall ancestors who garnered a good share of the resources, and a good food supply for the young when their bodies are developing. Shorter stature is associated with hunger, food intolerance, and illness. In general, taller individuals have better reproductive histories.” In fact, there is still a positive correlation between height and income.
We expect tall men to be at the top of our group hierarchy, so they simply don’t need to be as aggressive. The opposite may be said of short men. Because we don’t expect a short man to dominate the group, we find it out of character for them to even try.
Second, men who are shorter than average face systemic discrimination from a young age. As boys on the playground, they struggle to establish a place in the social hierarchy, often facing or fleeing from bullies in physical confrontations. And, as adults they are passed over by taller counterparts for jobs for which they may be every bit as qualified. Do tall people performer better at work? According to professor Etcoff’s research, “there were no differences in the quality or quantity of work performed based on height.” One doesn’t need to be tall to be a successful doctor, lawyer, programmer, plumber, electrician, or business leader.
Unfortunately, the prejudicial treatment doesn’t stop there. Shorter male teenagers must overcome ego-threatening height biases to break into the dating seen because women discriminate against short men in romantic relationships. In less than one percent of couples is the woman taller than the man. That statistic is far too low to attribute to the average height differences between women and men.
One theory is that women are attracted to the things that height has traditionally signified: good genes, wealth and status. Height doesn’t guaranty these outcomes, but it is a statistically reliable indicator. This is not to label women shallow for showing a penchant for a life partner with the positive qualities that height might indicate. Rather, it’s a matter of practicality and even survival. Who can argue against one’s desire for resources that ensure a safer, more comfortable life and the ample means to provide one’s family?
What’s interesting is this bias is openly accepted. Clinical psychologist Seth Meyers wrote, “While so many women report this preference (not being attracted to short men), I rarely hear any of them self-monitoring as they do so. In fact, you’d think one would ask herself, ‘Is that fair of me? Is that being mean? Could I be ruling out an entire group of men who could make great partners?’” Would we accept this open prejudice if it were based on another personal characteristic like race or gender?
These endeavors can be traumatic for some people and that trauma can lead to the development of a complex. So, if some short men have an inferiority complex, it is because many of their life experiences have made them feel inferior. People faced with biases against them either develop strategies to overcome discrimination or simply get left behind.
It’s difficult for individuals in this group not to take these judgments personally because they feel very personal. This is called stereotype threat, where just being aware that we are in a stereotype group alters our confidence and self-concept. Unfortunately, stereotype threat can have a negative impact on our behavior.
When we feel a heightened sensitivity to our perceived deficiencies and weaknesses we tend to focus on them, but not in a good way. My content collaborator, Dr. Jeannine Jannot, uses the example of women and mathematics. From a young age, girls are socialized to believe that they are inferior to boys in math. As a result, their performance suffers in that topic. However, studies show that when girls are primed to believe that they have a talent in that subject, they excel (even surpassing the boys).
When we are socialized to believe something we tend to behave in a manor that supports that belief. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I’m a female; therefore I have little talent in the subject of mathematics. I’m a short male; therefore I’m not a natural leader. We as individuals have varied talents, but in general both of these statements are bullshit.
Justification is the feedback loop. It keeps the stereotype cycle going.
We make a judgment about someone within 1/10th of one second of meeting them and this is done at an unconscious level. After that initial impression or anchor, we listen for cues to confirm our first impression. Height is, of course, one of the first things we notice when we meet someone.
We typically feel a sense of disappointment and even resentment when someone doesn’t confirm our initial impression. Therefore, we give them a label for letting us down. In this case, we say they have a Napoleon Complex. His behavior justifies my initial impression.
The truth is shorter men must exhibit aggressive behavior in order to overcome a societal bias because they are openly discriminated against in both work and romantic relationships.
Stereotypes are derived from unconscious biases, they continue to exist thanks to societal reinforcement. Our biases and behavior have a very real impact on the lives of others. The next time you diagnose someone with the Napoleon Complex (or any other complex for that matter), think of what they might have endured to develop those feelings of inferiority. Then ask yourself, “Have I contributed to those feelings?”
On The Flip Side
Interestingly, there is an antithesis to men with the Napoleon Complex. Dr. Susan Heitler calls a pattern of male narcissism exhibited in taller men Tall Man Syndrome. She wrote, “Narcissism is a potential price of success when you are taller than (others)…. With height—or, for that matter, any important dimension in which a child becomes a standout—a child… doesn’t have to concern himself with the feelings or concerns of other kids.”
Societal cues have so much to do with our self-concept, both positive and negative. We have the power to break down stereotypes, but we must first realize the roles of perspective and context. When you find yourself passing judgment on someone, ask yourself, “What has this person endured as a result of an association with a stereotype group?”
As George Carlin said, “Some people see the glass half full. Others see it half empty. I see a glass that's twice as big as it needs to be.” Perspective and context.