Jan. 16, 2013 at 6:30 PM ET
When searching for that dream girl or guy, height may be one of the qualities you put on your mental wish list. But is height a trait that people really care about when choosing a mate or is just a number?
A new study has found that people's height preferences mattered to both men and women and seemed to be reflected in their actual partner choices to some degree.
The effects observed for partner height preferences and actual mate characteristics were generally small, says study author Gert Stulp, a doctoral candidate in psychology at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.
For this study, published in the journal PLoS One, Dutch researchers compared height differences found in real-life couples to the distribution patterns expected in random mating. They looked at self-reported height data collected from about 12,500 heterosexual couples in the UK, who were participating in a long-term health study of British families.
Among these 12,500 British parents, the men were taller than the women in more than 11,500 pairs. Women were taller than their mates in 511 couples, while 425 twosomes were the same height.
Previous studies have found that women generally prefer men somewhat taller than themselves while guys typically go for a shorter gal. This new research revealed that men were taller than their female partners in 92.5% of the actual pairings, which is more often than expected on the basis of chance.
Ladies also tend to look for a fellow who's not too much taller than they are, a preference that was also reflected in the results. The number of actual mates in which the guy was 10 or more inches taller than a gal occurred in nearly 14 percent of couples, or rarer than would be expected by chance.
And the number of couples in which the man was much shorter than the woman was less likely to occur than pairs in which the man is only slightly smaller than the woman. More of the British couples fell into a category in which a male was roughly 2 to 8 inches taller than a female.
Even if the link between height preferences and actual partners is not very strong, the findings suggest that in Western cultures we truly do size up a potential mate.
Two other trends held up in the real-life twosomes, but they also had weaker associations than findings that were previously reported in preference studies (where people were asked to indicate the importance of characteristics they'd like in a potential mate.): Shorter women and taller men were more likely to have greater height differences with their mate, while taller women and shorter men preferred smaller variations in height.
Preferring a certain height in the opposite sex may mean preferring the biologically 'best' partner, points out Stulp. Since somewhat taller men seem to be preferred by women, he suggests this may have something to do with the fact that taller men tend to be somewhat more healthy, wealthy, and educated than guys who are vertically challenged.
In height preference studies he's conducted, Stulp says it appears that women -- and not men -- are driving the desire for a taller partner. He explains that men don't care much or only slightly care if a woman is shorter than they are, but women really do prefer a taller mate.
Height is one factor that could spark physical attraction, but Stulp suggests that clearly other partner traits play a role in selecting a mate and may be much more important.