Tall Poppy Syndrome

What is Tall poppy syndrome?

Tall poppy syndrome refers to an occurrence mainly in Australia and New Zealand, when individuals get criticized for being more successful than others. In some cases individuals who are overcome by their success, fame and fortune believe that they are above the law. In this case the term “tall poppy” is used to remind that law eventually catches up with everyone. More positively, the term “tall poppy” is used to refer to scholars, who have done outstanding work and need to be recognised for it [1].

In the Oxford dictionary of New Zealand English “tall poppy” is defined as a person with conspicuously successful person.” In Australia, Oxford dictionary defines tall poppy as “especially well paid, privileged or distinguished person” [5].

tall poppy syndrome

Image source: annemariecross.com

Tall Poppy Syndrome origins

Tall poppy syndrome is believed to date back to time before Aristotle. A roman king, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus (c.535-496 BC.) was a tyrannical leader. He fought a war with Latin city of Gabii because they rejected a treaty with Rome. The king sent his son Sextus to the city under false pretences. When the son gained confidence and trust in the city, he sent a messenger back to his father for further instructions.

The king didn’t use any words, but simply took a stick and struck it across a field of poppies, cutting down all the tallest ones. The messenger interpreted this action as to cut down all the brightest and most influential people in the city. This action would make the citizens fearful and make optimal conditions for the invasion of the city.

Although this story tells the origin of term “tall poppy”, it is believed that Aristotle inspired king Tarquinius. Aristotle read the works of Greek historian Herodotus. Around 7th century BC a tyrant Thrasybulus gave similar advice to his friend Periander. Thrasybulus entered a field of corn and sliced off all the tallest stalks, destroying the best parts of the crop. Periander interpreted this action as to remove all the influential and successful people who could threaten his leadership [2].

In Australia tall poppy syndrome is believed to be present since the time of colonisation. Australia was used as a British penal colony, and many Australians can trace their heritage back to the criminals who were sent there. These violent and angered prisoners resented successful people and this attitude is still present in the modern Australian culture [3]. For information about violence and its affects, read about Battered woman syndrome.

Tall Poppy Syndrome examples


A professor applies for a double increment in the university’s promotion system. Her application was appropriate but her taking this action aroused envy and hostility in her peers. They took action on their hostility and got her application denied. Since her peers “tall poppyed” her, the professor left and went to work in a different university[3]. This type of attitude towards a highly successful person can lead to anxiety, depression and other disorders, such as night eating syndrome.

New Zealand

A politically active individual has a very deep knowledge about current events and understands a lot about what is going on. When talking about her political interests and knowledge, she uses phrases like “I try to understand” or “I understand a little bit”. This can be seen as downplaying the actual knowledge-the woman is “tallpoppying” herself [4] (also read Savant syndrome).


Based on the literature data, researchers have distinguished 4 different types of tall poppy syndrome.

Type I- Individual – Peer

The individual-peer tall poppying is seen on many occasions, when a person or their actions distinguish them from others. Type I-A refers to direct detraction. For example, a New Zealand fire fighter Royd Kennedy lost friends and contact with his colleagues after receiving George Cross and Charles Upham award for bravery. He helped to save a 12 year old girl from a burning petrol tanker.

Although he claimed that the rescue was a team effort, his peers still detracted him. Type I-B refers to indirect detraction by peers. This means that a person can reveal some of their abilities, for example, sports achievements, but not intellectual abilities (also read about Asperger’s syndrome).

Type-II- Individual – Societal

Individual-Societal tall poppy syndrome manifestation can often be observed in denigration of high earning executives. It has been observed that in New Zealand the pay for executives is lower than in other countries. It has been suggested that the low pay for high level executives is due to tall poppy syndrome.

Researchers believe that Australian and New Zealander mentality doesn’t believe that the person on the top deserves the biggest reward. Also, in New Zealand under the NZ companies Act of 1993 all annual reports must state the number of employees receiving remuneration and other benefits that exceed 100’000 NZD.

Type III- Organisation – Peer

In this type of tall poppy syndrome the peers of a tall poppy organisation may strive to discredit the organisation. When a company is doing well, it can get tall-poppyed due to its success. On one occasion high-achieving stables in New Zealand were rumoured to use sodium bicarbonate for their horses. This chemical delays the effects of lactic acid on muscles, therefore promoting stamina. On the basis of these rumours, random checks were conducted on the stables, but the results were normal.

Type IV- Organisation – Societal

In this case, the society shows antipathy towards high earning organisations. This is often seen in Australia and New Zealand, while in countries like United States success is rewarded. For example, Fletcher Challenge was the largest company of New Zealand until 1999, when it was broken into 4 separate businesses.

The owner of the company stated that 2 prime ministers told him that the company has grown big enough. Sir James Fletcher also pointed out that big companies are not encouraged to grow bigger, because of society’s fear of dominance. Also read about Peter Pan syndrome.

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  1. What tis tall poppy syndrome: http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/jbp/eww/2004/00000025/00000001/art00001
  2. Origins of tall poppy syndrome: https://paulyting.com/2011/09/09/tall-poppy-syndrome-the-idiots-guide/
  3. Examples of tall poppy syndrome: http://www.businesspsych.org/articles/244.html;
  4. http://www.stuff.co.nz/dominion-post/news/74879039/Kiwi-tall-poppies-cut-themselves-first
  5. Types of tall poppy syndrome: http://ecampus.nmit.ac.nz/moodle/file.php/4599/Talent/Sheehan,%20Ramsay%20%20Patrick%20-%20Transcending_Boundaries,%202000.pdf#page=303

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