Journal of Experimental Psychology-Human Perception and Performance
Previous research on perceiving spatial layout has found that people often exhibit normative biases in their perception of the environment. For instance, slant is typically overestimated and distance is usually underestimated. Surprisingly, however, the perception of height has rarely been studied. The present experiments examined the perception of height when viewed from the top (e.g., looking down) or from the bottom (e.g., looking up). Multiple measures were adapted from previous studies of horizontal extents to assess the perception of height. Across all of the measures, a large, consistent bias was found: Vertical distances were greatly overestimated, especially from the top. Secondary findings suggest that the overestimation of distance and size that occurs when looking down from a high place correlates with reports of trait- and state-level fear of heights, suggesting that height overestimation may be due, in part, to fear.
Stefanucci, J. K., & Proffitt, D. R. (2009). The roles of altitude and fear in the perception of height. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 35(2), 424.