Is there anything to all this Napoleon complex talk? This article explains whether there’s any scientific basis to all the noise, and why it might not be a bad thing.
It is the victor who writes history and counts the dead.
As far as victories go, Napoleon chalked up his share.
Widely recognized as one of the greatest and most influential military commanders in history, he’s the kind of leader often imitated, never duplicated.
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Fast, fearless, adaptable, aggressive, strong, ambitious. Leaders like him shape history’s narrative.
Of all the events he had a hand in writing, though, he couldn’t shake a rumor that persisted in his day and remains in ours, namely that Napoleon Bonaparte was short.
Seen as more than merely a physical characteristic, many attribute his aggressive style and military conquests to a desire to make up for his diminutive dimensions.
Is there anything to this theory? Do you have a Napoleon complex? And if you do, is that necessarily a bad thing?
What Is a Napoleon Complex?
If you haven’t heard of the Napoleon complex before, here’s a sciency definition for your consideration: Short men compensate behaviorally in dyadic intrasexual competitions with taller rivals by behaving more indirectly aggressive in resource contests. Rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?
In real talk, the widely held notion holds that relatively shorter men are more aggressive than their taller peers due to a height-related inferiority complex.
It’s a subconscious balancing of the scales. Men respond to feelings of inferiority in certain physical traits by overcompensating in social interactions.
Known euphemistically as short man syndrome or little man syndrome (the “little” seems just a bit more pejorative, doesn’t it?), the theory has its roots in the evolutionary model.
Height has always had inherent advantages, like being able to reach asparagus water bottles strategically located on top shelves of Whole Foods or getting more hugs than their shorter counterparts on February 11th.
Shorter people have to balance the scale somehow, and increased aggression is seen as the gift the short man gives himself. It’s his survival strategy.
Napoleon seems like an appropriate torchbearer.
Beyond his gangster hand-in-waistcoat pose and reduced height, he is renowned for his aggressive military tactics, which were all about quick movement, large mobile batteries and utterly destroying the opposing army.
If Napoleon was the guys from Office Space, his enemies were definitely the photocopier.
He was quite the conqueror.
Land of the Tall?
Asparagus water bottles and hugs aside, it would seem that our world favors the tall.
In the 20th century, the taller candidate has won in all but three American presidential elections.
The 21st century is following suit. Most recently, a surprisingly tall 6 ft 2 Donald J Trump and his 306 Electoral College votes defeated 5 ft 5 Hillary Clinton’s 232 votes. [Abraham Lincoln? A towering 6 ft 4.]
“Taller workers receive a substantial premium in earnings” according to many independent studies.
This made sense when labor markets were dependent on physical productivity.
But the trend has continued into the modern era, where most occupations are increasingly sedentary.
What Are You Doing Friday Night?
This one might hurt a bit. The whole tall, dark and handsome line appears to be a thing with women expressing a general preference for dating men taller than themselves.
They also rate men as more attractive when taller than the woman they’re with.
The dating world is kind of like running away from a bear: you don’t have to be faster than the bear; you just have to be faster than the guy next to you. You don’t have to be the tallest guy—just taller than those around you.
These points are by no means hard and fast rules. The victory doesn’t always have to go to the tall. Take 5 ft 7 Tom Cruise as a counter argument. If he can buck the trend, certainly you can!
So, How Tall Was Napoleon?
One of monsieur Bonaparte’s most famous quotes has him talking to a military commander who felt uncomfortable being taller than the Emperor: “You may be taller, but I am greater.” That right there was the equivalent of a 19th century mic drop.
Here’s the rub, though. Despite reports to the contrary, Napoleon wasn’t short for his time.
Historians generally estimate his height to be somewhere in the 5’6” to 5’7” ballpark. This may seem less than average by modern day standards, but it was unremarkably average for Frenchmen at the time. What gives? Why does the short dictator trope endure?
Like most injustices in life, the blame lies squarely with the Brits.
Without diving too deeply into 19th century European politics (who has the energy for that?!), the English had an axe to grind with the Frenchman, who was aggressively conquering much of Western Europe.
Was the UK to be next? Not if British cartoonists had anything to do with it.
James Gillray, for example, brought “Little Boney” to life—a diminutive, childlike dictator prone to proper strong fits, flipping furniture and decrying the Brits while kitted out in oversized boots and a big hats. (About that last one, he was clearly just ahead on the bleeding edge of fashion.)
The trope caught on and a wee Bonaparte became the norm for English newspapers.
Wait. What about his nickname Le Petit Caporal? In short (low-hanging fruit, I know), this was a term of affection, not animosity.
His soldiers loved their definitely-beyond-a-doubt-completely-average-height leader. He boasted a battle record of 60 victories to 8 losses.
He was one of the greatest military commanders to ever walk the earth. Napoleon was l’homme and his soldiers knew it.
Contemporary French paintings confirm Napoleon’s average height.
When he’s riding a horse, as in Jacques-Louis David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps, his body is depicted as proportionate to the steed.
Antoine-Jean Gros’ painting of the emperor visiting his troops in Jaffa presents the fully clothed Bonaparte as being of the same height as his clothed-to-varying-degrees plague-ridden troops. French art has never lied to us before, so we’re inclined to take it at its word.
What can we distill from these propaganda games between the French and the British?
Firstly, political press coverage was a lot more fun a few hundred years ago than, say, reading presidential tweets today. Secondly, for the purposes of this discussion, Napoleon was just a regular guy of average height trying to make it in this crazy world.
Now that we’ve righted that historical wrong, how about taking on the theory from an analytical angle? Is there something to this whole Napoleon complex thing?
What Science Says
First off, we should take a moment to applaud the fact that scientists have been paid to do this kind of groundbreaking research at a time when diseases continue to ravage mankind and PhD-less teenagers are leading the charge against global warming.
This is a victory for the little guy in every sense of the word.
On to the research. A study conducted by academics in Amsterdam proposed that relatively shorter men would be inclined to keep more assets for themselves when pitted against taller peers, thereby supporting the Napoleon complex.
Considering themselves as ill-equipped to compete against taller males, ‘shorter men show greater behavioral flexibility in securing resources.’ Work harder, not taller, or something to that effect.
Participants of varying heights were led into cubicles and asked if they ever felt small, grading this on a 7-point scale (1 = never, 7 = often). They were given eight €1 coins and a set of instructions.
The participants could take as many coins as they wanted, leaving the rest for a second unknown party. The results of the coin game are displayed on a fun XY graph below.
Note that the smaller a participant felt, the more coins they kept for themselves. Researchers explain that self-reported height was not a predictor of coin allocation, but rather the feeling of being small.
Significantly, this ‘game’ (seems like a generous term…) was played blind. The participants did not know the height of the other person that would collect the remaining coins.
TL;DR version? The smaller a person feels, the more likely they are to keep assets for themselves.
A second study called ‘Dictator Game’ was conducted, this time incorporating a competitive element. Twenty-one pairs of men were recruited.
They were introduced to each other. Their heights were measured and read out loud in front of the pair. In other words, a real dictator-measuring contest. Then they were led into separate rooms.
Eighteen coins were placed on a table. Participants were instructed to take as many of the eighteen coins as they wanted, with the remainder being given to the other man.
They were told that they would leave the lab separately, never having to meet the competitor again. No consequences.
Results showed that shorter participants, regardless of their opponent’s height, kept more coins for themselves. Here’s another graph for your viewing pleasure.
Findings from the second study revealed that the shorter a person is, the more coins they’re likely to take. Fascinatingly, this was only the case when the participant was assured that they wouldn’t interact with their competitor again.
There was a third study conducted involving participants called Hot-sauce allocation task. It’s as great as it sounds! Participants could decide how much hot sauce their opponent had to drink. The results were inconclusive… but so good, right? Why didn’t I pursue research science?!
That was a lot of data. The take home is that, despite the inaccurate historical reference, science supports the viability of the Napoleon complex.
Short men tend to hold onto more assets in competitive interactions, whether the inferiority is perceived or actual. Researchers interpret this as aggression. Short people may call it leveling the playing field.
Do You Have a Napoleon Complex? (Probably Not)
This is the thing, isn’t it? Learning that the Napoleon complex actually has some foundation in fact might make a person of less generous vertical proportions start to look internally. Would I take more coins? How much hot-sauce would I have made a taller nemesis drink?
For starters, this complex isn’t part and parcel of being short. Statistical findings, such as those above, have to be understood as what they are: generalizations.
Not every short person is inevitably bound to fall somewhere on the Napoleon spectrum. Painting with a broad brush not only lacks accuracy but also the ability to incorporate personality nuances that are intrinsic in describing the real you. You are not a complex or syndrome.
Further, it’s natural to compensate for things we don’t have. This doesn’t make us less than; it makes us human.
For example, I talk a lot of smack when playing ping pong because my backhand flick is weak. Some people wear hats to take attention away from their face. We all have our thing that we’re sensitive about.
At its worst, someone who exhibits traits of the Napoleon complex may be belligerent, quarrelsome, aggressive, and difficult to deal with. Is that you? We don’t think so either.
On the other hand, do you have a penchant for wearing shoes with a slight thicker heel? Do you hang pictures a bit lower? That doesn’t make you a despot.
What if after some careful soul searching you find that there might be a little bit of Napoleonic aggression in you? Domage. Is it all bad news?
The Silver Lining and Last Laughs
Taller people may enjoy more presidential campaign wins, go out on more dates and earn hundreds of thousands of dollars more than their shorter counterparts. But shorter people enjoy the last laugh.
Research from the University of Hawaii revealed that shorter men were more likely to have FOXO3, a protective form of the longevity gene.
Shorter men also have lower blood insulin levels and less cancer. The news gets even better if you happen to be under 5 ft 2. Researchers say those folks live the longest. Conversely, the taller you get, the shorter you live. [Excuse me as I get my affairs in order.]
Actually, there are several physical advantages to being relatively short.
Faster reaction times, quicker muscle gains when hitting the gym, greater endurance, and being less likely to break bones in a fall or die in a car crash. No joke!
Physiological benefits aside, are there advantages to getting your Napoleon on?
In a word, yes! The Napoleon complex is a phenomenon that implies motivation to do more, to try harder, to go faster, to be better.
If we can borrow a Charlie Sheen-ism, it’s about winning. And although we’re all pretty sure there was something wrong with him, there’s nothing wrong about trying to be the best you possible.
If we get down to brass tacks, shorter people often have to work harder to prove their worth.
Whether you choose to attribute the bias towards taller people as part of the evolutionary model or a conspiracy designed by the height blessed or simple ignorance, the prejudice is out there.
So, if you feel an unexplainable force driving you more, embrace it. Do you feel like you have to do an extra set at the gym? Go for it.
Are you inexplicably inclined to run some extra miles after your partners stop for water? Those guys are quitters. You’ve got this. Are you prone to work harder than the rest of your team? Deliver the goods on your next project like your life depended on it.
Are you motivated to be the best boyfriend/husband you can possibly be? Your partner is luckier than they know.
With a bit of Napoleon fueling your fire, you’ll very likely be a better person for it. Channel your inner French emperor and shout:
You may be taller, but I am greater!