I am left-handed and so I noticed when I was quite young that words were not favourable to lefties: right as opposed to left, dexterous as opposed to sinister, droit as opposed to gauche. I was told that this was a purely linguistically fossilized prejudice; people did not really put a value characteristic on handedness any more.
But it turned out that consciously and more often unconsciously, our cognition is affected by a value judgment based on left-and-right. For example, A Kranjec, M Lehet, B Bromberger, A Chatterjee (2010), A Sinister Bias for Calling Fouls in Soccer, looked at the effect of culture on ref calls. Here is the abstract:
Distinguishing between a fair and unfair tackle in soccer can be difficult. For referees, choosing to call a foul often requires a decision despite some level of ambiguity. We were interested in whether a well documented perceptual-motor bias associated with reading direction influenced foul judgments. Prior studies have shown that readers of left-to-right languages tend to think of prototypical events as unfolding concordantly, from left-to-right in space. It follows that events moving from right-to-left should be perceived as atypical and relatively debased. In an experiment using a go/no-go task and photographs taken from real games, participants made more foul calls for pictures depicting left-moving events compared to pictures depicting right-moving events. These data suggest that two referees watching the same play from distinct vantage points may be differentially predisposed to call a foul.
But there were other non-cultural associations. The body-specificity hypothesis states that conventions of language and culture could not explain how people with different kinds of bodies think differently in predicable ways, even about highly abstract ideas. Evidence for this theory was given by Casasanto (2009), Embodiment of Abstract Concepts: Good and Bad in Right- and Left-Handers. Here is the abstract:
Do people with different kinds of bodies think differently? According to the body-specificity hypothesis, people who interact with their physical environments in systematically different ways should form correspondingly different mental representations. In a test of this hypothesis, 5 experiments investigated links between handedness and the mental representation of abstract concepts with positive or negative valence (e.g., honesty, sadness, intelligence). Mappings from spatial location to emotional valence differed between right-hand left-handed participants. Right-handers tended to associate rightward space with positive ideas and leftward space with negative ideas, but left-handers showed the opposite pattern, associating rightward space with negative ideas and leftward with positive ideas. These contrasting mental metaphors for valence cannot be attributed to linguistic experience, because idioms in English associate good with right but not with left. Rather, right- and left-handers implicitly associated positive valence more strongly with the side of space on which they could act more fluently with their dominant hands. These results support the body-specificity hypothesis and provide evidence for the perceptuomotor basis of even the most abstract ideas.
Casasanto has shown that the handedness and with it the moral tinge on the words are not premanent. “People generally think their judgements are rational, and their concepts are stable,” says Casasanto. “But if wearing a glove for a few minutes can reverse people’s usual judgements of what’s good and bad, perhaps the mind is more malleable than we thought.”
Here is an abstracts: D. Casasanto and E. Chrysikou (2011); When Left Is “Right”” Motor Fluency Shapes Abstract Concepts.
Right- and left-handers implicitly associate positive ideas like “goodness” and “honesty” more strongly with their dominant side of space, the side on which they can act more fluently, and negative ideas more strongly with their nondominant side. Here we show that right-handers’ tendency to associate “good” with “right” and “bad” with “left” can be reversed as a result of both long- and short-term changes in motor fluency. Among patients who were right-handed prior to unilateral stroke, those with disabled left hands associated “good” with “right,” but those with disabled right hands associated “good” with “left,” as natural left-handers do. A similar pattern was found in healthy right-handers whose right or left hand was temporarily handicapped in the laboratory. Even a few minutes of acting more fluently with the left hand can change right-handers’ implicit associations between space and emotional valence, causing a reversal of their usual judgments. Motor experience plays a causal role in shaping abstract thought.
Here is part of the conclusion of this paper:
Motor fluency has been linked previously with preferences for things that people can act on with their hands…These effects can be readily explained in terms of motor affordances: People mentally simulate performing the action that an object would afford if they were to act on it, such as picking up a spatula or typing letters, and their preference judgments vary according to how fluent this action would be.
Yet motor tendencies also predict judgments about abstract ideas and things people can never manipulate with their hands, as when left- or right-handers attribute more intelligence or honesty to alien creatures depicted on their dominant side of a page than to those depicted on their nondominant side (Casasanto, 2009). In the present study, changes in motor fluency influenced participants’ judgments about the spatialization of imaginary creatures, on the basis of the creatures’ intangible qualities. These results demonstrate a causal link between manual motor
fluency and abstract judgments and suggest that this link is not necessarily mediated by mental simulation of action affordances. Associations between emotional valence and left/right space may be established through habits of fluent and disfluent hand actions, but these associations generalize to influence judgments about things people can never see or touch. It remains a challenge for future research to characterize the neurocognitive mechanisms by which physical experience generalizes to shape abstract conceptions of good and bad.
Before it was shown that handedness was not completely fixed, one could think that the prehaps the same genetics/development that produced a person’s handedness also produced their abstract associations with left and right. But as the associations change with the hand that is most able and dexterous, this is a direct embodiment of positive properties with the dominant hand and side along with negative properties with the non-dominant hand and side. It cannot be due to language or culture. This leaves the more active motor cortex as the key to the effect.
This is the sixth in a series on embodied cognition. There will be future ones still to come.
Here are the first five in the series: