Handedness influences thinking
A research study published this week claims that our handedness is a major subliminal influence in the choices and decisions we make in all aspects our daily lives.
The decision making process of left-handers was studied by Daniel Casasanto whilst a postdoctoral scholar in psychology at Stanford. Through a series of tasks comparing the preference of left and right handers to objects presented to them from the left or right, he found that righties tend to judge objects on their right side as positive and objects on their left side as negative. Lefties do the opposite, pairing positive things with their left side and negative things with their right.
The tests were quite varied, so as to analyse participants preferences in a number of different situations. In one test, for example the participants were given a sheet of paper paper with two boxes side by side, and had to draw a zebra in one and a panda in the other. A majority (74 percent) of left-handers drew the “good” animal in the box on the left, while most (67 percent) of the right-handers drew the good animal in the box on the right. Digging deeper into the statistics, it turns out that right-handers were nearly six times more likely than lefties to place the good animal on the right and the bad animal on the left. “Right-handers’ responses were consistent with the mental metaphor Good Is Right, and left-handers’ with the mental metaphor Good Is Left,” says Casasanto.
In another test, 286 students were shown pairs of fictional alien figures called Fribbles, odd animal-like creatures with squiggly appendages. The students were shown two groups of Fribbles, one group on the right side and the other on the left.
Right-handed students were more likely to view the Fribbles on the right side as intelligent, happy, honest and attractive. Lefties judged Fribbles on the left more favorably.
Further to this, Casasanto had 371 volunteers read brief descriptions of products (mattresses, desk chairs, kiddie pools) on the left or right side of a page and then indicate which they’d like to buy. Again, most righties chose the product described on the right side, but most leftiesâ€”resisting whatever implicit message the righty culture conveysâ€”chose the item on the left. And when volunteers read about two job candidates whose CV’s (resumes) were printed side-by-side, right-handers tended to choose the person described on the right, but left-handers chose the one on the left, again being unconsciously swayed by their experience of space more than the conventions of language and culture.
Casasanto believes this is because for left-handers, the left side of any space has positive moral, intellectual, and emotional connotations whereas for righties, the right side does. That association could apply in situations ranging from whether we choose one brand of coffee over another simply because of its position on the supermarket shelves to whom we might identify as a criminal suspect because of their position in a police lineup.
We have this illusion that we base our decisions largely on relevant and sufficient information, yet social psychology over the past decades has shown us that there are lots of other factors that shape our judgments.” Casasanto said.
This study is likely to spark interesting debate. Cognitive scientists have long thought that since the regions of the brain that process our perceptions of the physical world are distinct from the regions that process abstract conceptsâ€”good and bad, honest and dishonest, smart and stupidâ€”our spatial perceptions would have no effect on abstract thinking. Casasanto’s findings support a competing idea, namely, that neuronal circuits that control concrete perceptions and actions also handle abstract thoughts.
He calls it the Body-Specificity Hypothesis. And it implies that people with different physical characteristics, such as being right- or left-handed, form different abstract concepts, corresponding to those physical traits. For southpaws, the left side of any space has positive moral, intellectual, and emotional connotations; for righties, the right side does. What Casasanto calls “these contrasting mental metaphors” cannot be “attributed to linguistic experience,” he points out, “because idioms in English associate good with right but not with left. But right- and left-handers implicitly associated positive values more strongly with the side of space on which they could act more fluently with their dominant hands.” That influence is stronger than the linguistic cues we get every day about “right-hand man,” “the right side of history,” “out in left field,” or “two left feet.”
Our left preference extends far beyond the hand we write with. Lefties instinctively choose the left side in many social situations where the right side is the convention, such as social kissing left cheek first, drinking from the left wine glass at formal dinners, and guiding their partner anti-clockwise around the dancefloor, until the tide of other dancers forces them to conform. It is interesting to consider though, whether this extends to our subconscious choices made throughout our lives.
One possible benefit of understanding how physical experiences influence our preferences could be an improved education system. If righties write the textbook and create the exercises and set up the classrooms, they’re likely to arrange things according to this implicit â€˜right is good’ preference,â€ Casasanto said. Maybe that’s going to make learning math or going to school and sitting in the classroom just a little bit less pleasant or more disconcerting for lefties. Potentially, sensitivity to this could create better learning environments for lefties.
Casasanto’s paper is in the August 2009 edition of Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.
Read anecdotes from left-handers about instinctively left-handed actions in everyday life
Daniel Casasanto is now based at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Netherlands