Left versus Right Handed
2010 May 19

     The subject has come up: Are left-handed people smarter? Are all left-handed people smart? Are all smart people left handed? A conversation with a (married) couple of Ph.D.-psychologists has made me rethink my anecdotal data and my conclusion.

     My experience leaves little doubt on its surface.
• My high-school, smart-kids clique was half left-handed and half right.
• My college math-majors group at Princeton was half left-handed and half right.
• My graduate math-Ph.D. group (Operations Research at Stanford) was half left-handed and half right.
• My department at Bell Telephone Laboratories (really top and diverse group) was half left-handed and half right.

     The conclusion I drew from my experience is that half the smart people are left-handed and half are right-handed. Since the global population is about 10% left and 90% right, that means that a given left-handed person is more likely smart, but that a smart person is not more likely left-handed.

     There were two small-company, top-smart groups I worked with at SourceProse and Khimetrics who were almost all lefties. These groups were started and run by smart, left-handed people.

     There was one feature in common of all the groups I belonged to that could be relevant in the left-right ratio. I'm left-handed and all these groups included me. Either I was drawn to them or they chose me. Asking me for the distribution of my associations is like asking a white or black person for his friends list to determine racial ratios—it's going to be biased in favor of the observer's race. On the other hand (the right hand maybe), do left-handed people attract left-handed friends and family the way white or black people attract same-race friends and family?

     I'm curious if smart right-handed people find a similar over-representation of left-handed colleagues, at least in the math-computer-geek world I live in.

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     What about my own hobbies? My hobbies are music and sound, running, and aviation. I don't know about this left-brain-right-brain stuff for musicians, artists, or even mathematicians, I see no handedness bias in running, but airplane pilots seem to be left-handed.

     Older airplanes, Piper Cubs and Luscombes and Taylorcrafts and Aeroncas, have control sticks with throttles on the left side, so a right-handed person has a natural advantage. Sitting in the left seat of newer side-by-side airplanes, the kinds I fly, the pilot in command (PIC) has a natural advantage being left-handed. Holding the yoke in my left hand and the throttle in my right is a natural way to control the airplane. Putting the right hand on the steering wheel of a left-side-drive car is easy, but using the right hand to fly from the left seat means not having it on the mid-panel throttle.

     My younger flying friends from the side-by-side-airplane universe where I learned to fly are left-handed with astonishing frequency. I've never done an a count or fraction like I did with my math-geek classmates, friends, and colleagues. What I can say is I noticed the high frequency of left-handed pilots, noted that older pilots flying older airplanes were usually right-handed, and came up with the theory that the mechanics of flying our airplanes select our pilots by handedness.

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     So we write English like chicken-scratch, struggle with your scissors and hand tools, and can't use clockwise-only doorknobs you made for your handedness. We seem to do math as well as you do at the smart end and fly today's airplanes better.




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