In a study in the journal Psychiatry Research, scientists showed that making a person's virtual height lower than it actually is can make them feel worse about themselves and more fearful that others are trying to harm them.
The research shows how low self-esteem can lead to paranoid thinking, the scientists said, and will be used to develop more effective psychological treatments for severe paranoia, a serious mental health problem.
"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," said Daniel Freeman of Britain's University of Oxford, who led the study.
He explained that in this experiment, when people's height was virtually reduced, they felt inferior and this caused them to feel overly mistrustful.
"This all happened in a virtual reality (VR) simulation but we know that people behave in VR as they do in real life," Freeman added.
Freeman's team tested 60 adult women from the general population who were prone to having "mistrustful thoughts" and put them through a VR experience of an underground train ride.
The participants experienced the same "journey" twice, once at their normal height and once at a height that had been virtually reduced by around 25 centimetres. In both parts of the experiment, the other virtual passengers were programmed to be neutral and cause fear.
While most participants did not consciously register the height difference, more of them reported negative feelings - such as feeling incompetent, unlikeable and inferior - when they were in the lower height phase of the experiment.
These negative thoughts translated into an increase in paranoia towards the other passengers, the researchers said, including making the participants more likely to think someone in the carriage was staring at them, had bad intentions towards them or was trying to upset them.
"It provides a key insight into paranoia, showing that people's excessive mistrust of others directly builds upon their own negative feelings about themselves," said Freeman.
"The important treatment implication... is that if we help people to feel more self-confident then they will be less mistrustful."