Professor Daniel Freeman, a Medical Research Council senior clinical fellow at Oxford University, said the study made use of an underground train simulator to test people's responses to being reduced in height.
The study, published in the journal Psychiatry Research, demonstrated making a person's height lower than normal in the virtual reality simulation could make them feel worse about themselves and more fearful that others were trying to harm them.
"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," Freeman said in a statement.
"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."
The study tested 60 adult women from the general population who were prone to having "mistrustful thoughts." The participants experienced an underground subway ride via virtual reality simulation. They experienced the same "journey" twice, with the only difference being a reduction in height of about a height of a head -- about 10 inches.
In both instances, the other virtual passengers were programmed to be neutral, so if fears occurred about the virtual characters they would be known to be unfounded.
While most people did not consciously register the height difference, there was an increase in the number of people who reported feelings of social inferiority -- incompetent, unlikeable and inferior -- in the lower height phase of the experiment.
These negative thoughts translated into an increase in paranoia towards the other passengers. The participants were more likely to think that someone in the carriage was staring in order to upset them, had bad intentions towards them, or were trying to make them distressed, Freeman said.
"This all happened in a virtual reality simulation but we know that people behave in virtual reality as they do in real life," Freeman said. "It provides a key insight into paranoia, showing that people's excessive mistrust of others directly builds upon their own negative feelings about themselves."