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See Inside Scientific American Mind Volume 23, Issue 3

Your Body Influences Your Preferences

Why we are biased toward things on our dominant side



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If you are right-handed, chances are you will make different choices than your left-handed friends. A series of recent studies shows that we associate our dominant side with good and our nondominant side with bad, preferring products and people that happen to be on our “good” side over those closer to the other half of our body.

The theory of embodied cognition, widely embraced by cognitive scientists in recent years, holds that our abstract ideas are grounded in our physical experiences in the world. (See above: “embraced,” “holds,” “grounded.”) Daniel Casasanto, a psychologist at the New School for Social Research, began to wonder: If our bodies shape our thinking, do people with different bodies think differently? He has been using handedness as a test bed for this body-specific hypothesis.

In a set of studies published in 2009 Casasanto found that right-handers associate right with good and left with bad and that left-handers make the reverse associations. People prefer objects, job candidates and images of alien creatures on their dominant side to those on their nondominant side. In 2010 he reported that presidential candidates (Kerry, Bush, Obama and McCain) gesture with their dominant hands when making positive points and their weak hands to emphasize darker matters. And he has collected data to suggest that lefties hold higher opinions of their flight attendants when seated on the right side of a plane.

To rule out the possibility that this bias is purely genetic, like handedness is, Casasanto handicapped people's preferred hands. In a 2011 study he had subjects manipulate dominoes while wearing a bulky ski glove on their good hand. Afterward, they showed a bias against things on that side. The results suggest that we look kindly on half the world because we can interact with that side fluently. Make it a hassle, and opinions flip.

Most recently, Casasanto reported in January in Cognitive Science that children as young as six display a handedness bias. Kids were asked which animal in a series of cartoon pairs looked nicer or smarter. The right-handers more often chose the drawing on the right side, and the left-handers more often chose the animal on the left. They also elected to put away their preferred toys in boxes on their dominant side.

“We all walk around with these lopsided bodies and have to interact with our environment in systematically different ways,” Casasanto notes. Given how broadly those interactions can influence our thinking, he says, “body specificity may be shaping our judgments in the real world in ways that we never suspected.”

This article was originally published with the title "Right Hand, Right Choice."

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