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Good and bad in right- and left-handers

Why is the correct answer called the 'right' answer and not the 'left' answer? Why did the Latin word for right (dexter) give rise to an English word meaning skillful, but the word for left (sinister) to a word meaning evil? A new study by MPI researcher Daniel Casasanto sheds light on the association of good with right and bad with left across languages and cultures. It was published in the August 1, 2009 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.
Good and bad in right- and left-handers

Aug 11, 2009

According to Casasanto right is associated with good because most people are right-handed. 'We can manipulate objects with our dominant hand more fluently than with our non-dominant hand. Over a lifetime of lopsided motor experience, we come to associate good things with the side of space we interact with more skillfully and bad things with the side we interact with more clumsily', Casasanto says. This association in the minds of the right-handed majority gets enshrined in expressions like 'my right hand man' and 'two left feet'.

Alien creatures

Casasanto’s proposal makes a surprising prediction: people should like things better when they are located on their dominant side of space. Right- and left-handers should show opposite preferences. To test this prediction, Casasanto probed associations between space and preference in more than 1000 university students. In one experiment, participants saw pairs of alien creatures from the planet 'Fribbalia' sitting side by side on a page. On average, right-handers judged the ‘Fribbles’ on the right to be smarter, happier, more honest, and more attractive, whereas left-handers judged the Fribbles on the left more favorably.

Choosing products

In another experiment, participants went on an imaginary shopping spree and chose products described on the left or right of the page.  Right-handers tended to choose the product described on the right, but left-handers were more likely to choose the one on the left.  Other experiments confirmed that right- and left-handers' judgments differed even when they gave responses verbally, without using their hands. 

How bodies shape minds

For decades, cognitive scientists believed that the parts of the brain responsible for abstract thinking were separate from the parts that allow us to perceive and act upon the concrete world.  Casasanto's study challenges this dogma, and provides initial evidence for an idea he calls the Body-Specificity Hypothesis: because thinking depends on brain areas that control bodily actions, people with different kinds of bodies think differently.  People’s judgments depend in part on the way they interact with the physical world.  

Greatest impact on our judgments

'Since most people are right-handed, righties’ body-specific preferences are likely to have the greatest impact on our collective judgments – to partly determine whether restaurant goers order dishes from the right or left side of a menu, whether drivers follow the right or left fork in the road, and whether voters elect candidates listed on the right or left of a ballot. To attract customers, gain popularity, or win votes, the right side may be the ‘right’ place to be.'

 

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The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics is an institute of the German Max Planck Society. Our mission is to undertake basic research into the psychological,social and biological foundations of language. The goal is to understand how our minds and brains process language, how language interacts with other aspects of mind, and how we can learn languages of quite different types.

The institute is situated on the campus of the Radboud University. We participate in the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, and have particularly close ties to that institute's Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging. We also participate in the Centre for Language Studies. A joint graduate school, the IMPRS in Language Sciences, links the Donders Institute, the CLS and the MPI.

 

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