Whether you are left or right handed shapes our judgments of good and bad, smart and stupid

This from Newsweek:

Memo to restaurant owners: if there are particular dishes you want more customers to order, list them on the right side of the menu…

Simply put, we associate the side of space where we’re clumsier with bad, stupid, dishonest, unhappy and other negative qualities, finds Daniel Casasanto of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands.

In a series of five clever studies, reported Aug. 1 in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, he had university students take tests probing their unconscious attitudes toward the left and right side of the world. In one, 219 students from Stanford University and the University of California, Riverside, were told that a cartoon character loves zebras but hates pandas (or vice versa). On a paper with two boxes side by side, they 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 my favorite experiment, Casasanto showed 286 student volunteers pictures of “Fribbles” (aliens from the planet Fribbalia, of course) arrayed in two columns, side by side on a page. Between each pair was an instruction, such as “Circle the Fribble who looks more intelligent”—or more attractive, more honest, happier, less intelligent, less attractive, less honest, sadder. Of the participants who showed a directional preference, most left-handers (65 percent) attributed positive characteristics more often to Fribbles on the left, while most right-handers (54 percent) attributed positive characteristics more often to Fribbles on the right. Statistical analysis showed that righties were about twice as likely as southpaws to attribute positive characteristics to Fribbles on the right side.

Now, why’ve I blogged about it on a political blog?

Partly because of its intrinsic interest, but also because it is but one example of a large volume of research in recent years that highlights how susceptible we are to very subtle cues. Sometimes the results are amusing. Sometimes they’re bizarre. Sometimes they’re problematic.

What is common about them is how often the decisions we make are influenced by factors many people would absolutely rubbish if presented to them cold: “ What? You mean I might think the photo of one PPC candidate looks more honest than another, just because of where it is on the page? Ha ha ha ha – you must be REALLY STUPID”.

(You think that caricature is unfair? Look back at some of the commentary across the internet in response to Lynne Featherstone’s proposal for anonymous job applications. You’ll find plenty of people who think it unthinkable that someone other than an out and out racist might have a subconscious bias against someone triggered by their name.)

Faced with such a range of subtle cues, where small details can have big impacts on people’s behaviour, there can be a sharp and tricky conflict between not wanting to micro-manage, but also knowing that it’s the micro-level effects which can have large impacts.

Good policy making will require an understanding of both sides of that tension.

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