The results of a new study published in the journal Psychiatry Research reveal that people who had their height “virtually lowered” feel more inferior and mistrustful.

Previous studies examining the psychological perceptions of height have suggested that a person’s height conveys certain social connotations. Prof. Daniel Freeman, who conducted the study at the University of Oxford in the UK, explains:

“Being tall is associated with greater career and relationship success. Height is taken to convey authority, and we feel taller when we feel more powerful. It is little wonder then that men and women tend to over-report their height. In this study we reduced people’s height, which led to a striking consequence: people felt inferior and this caused them to feel overly mistrustful.”

In the new study, researchers used a “virtual reality simulation” to test the emotional responses of 60 adult women who “were prone to having mistrustful thoughts.”

Prof. Freeman notes that although their study occurred in a virtual reality (VR) simulation, “we know that people behave in VR as they do in real life.”

The simulation involved the user adopting the perspective of a passenger on the London Underground subway network. Each participant in the study took their train “journey” twice and commented on their experience.

However, in the second simulated trip, which is shown below, the height of the passenger was virtually lowered by 25 cm (approximately “one head”).

Most of the participants in the study did not realize that their height had been lowered on the second pass of the simulation. But there was a significant increase in the number of people reporting negative feelings while experiencing the second journey.

These included feeling incompetent, unlikeable and inferior – and there was also an increase in feelings of paranoia toward the other “passengers” of the train.

The simulation was populated with other characters sharing the train ride with the participant in the study. These characters were computer generations pre-programmed to behave in a “neutral” way. The behavior of the simulated passengers was consistent across the two tests – they were not programmed to appear menacing to the user in either of the journeys.

But after the lowered height journey, the participants were more likely to believe that people in the carriage were staring at them, “had bad intentions towards them” or were trying to intimidate them.

“It provides a key insight into paranoia,” says Prof. Freeman, “showing that people’s excessive mistrust of others directly builds upon their own negative feelings about themselves. The important treatment implication for severe paranoia that we can take from this study is that if we help people to feel more self-confident then they will be less mistrustful. This prediction is exactly what we are testing in the next phase of our work, a new randomized controlled clinical trial.”

Another new study conducted by researchers at Newcastle University in the UK found that even a brief visit to a deprived neighborhood that is high in crime can quickly elevate feelings of paranoia and mistrust in people.

Residents of these deprived neighborhoods were found to have equivalent levels of paranoia and mistrust to the visitors, and the study found that these feelings were sustained over time.

Although studying the urban environment and assessing the psychological effects of height may not seem related, both studies contribute to growing research on the nature of paranoia and what the most effective ways to treat paranoid thinking might be.

Professor Hugh Perry, chair of the MRC Neurosciences and Mental Health Board, who funded the research, says:

Funding research that helps improve understanding of what causes disrupted thought patterns is important if we’re to develop interventions that work further down the road. For people whose lives are affected by paranoid thinking, this study provides useful insights on the role of height and how this can influence a person’s sense of mistrust.”