Left hand forward

Left-Handers’ Day takes place on 13 August. To mark it, John Charlton takes a
look at the differences between right and left-handers and examines whether
‘lefties’ are better suited to certain jobs

They are one of Britain’s most significant minorities, yet very little is
done to accommodate their physical preference. Their numbers in the population
have risen from three per cent 100 years ago to more than 10 per cent now, but
markets ignore them and employers pay little heed to their difference.
Continuing research indicates that many in their ranks have abilities which
exceed occupational norms. They are, left-handers. And, it seems, for them
career choices can still be tough.

"There are some jobs from which left-handers are almost totally
excluded – bricklaying, for example. Usually this is due to a lack of tools
which suit left-handers," says Keith Milsom, managing director of
Surrey-based retailer Anything Left-Handed.

Milsom also works for the International Left-Handers Club. Founded in 1991,
its mission is "to help left-handers feel proud of their handedness, and
to campaign to remove practical frustrations". It is set to publish a
survey into various aspects of left-handedness on International Left Handers’
Day, on 13 August.

Studies into left-handedness have grown in recent years. Many academics and scientists
are keen to identify what makes them left-handed and they’ve got plenty of raw
material to draw upon.

Some reports have sought to unravel the mysteries of whether being
left-handed predisposes someone to be better at one type of job or to be disadvantaged
in certain posts. But more of that later.

According to Chris McManus, professor of psychology and medical education at
University College London, just over 10 per cent of the UK and Western
populations are left-handed. The percentage of male left-handers is slightly
higher than that for females.

But what accounts for the sudden increase in left-handedness in the
population over the last 100 years? The waning of discrimination is one answer.
In Victorian times, for example, left-handed children were forced to write with
their right hands by having their left hands tied behind their backs, or they
had to sit on their left hands. Biblical interpretations have also cast
left-handers under a cloud, with many symbolic associations linking right with ‘good’
and left with ‘evil’ – the word ‘sinister’ actually refers to the unlucky side
– or left hand side.

Such prejudice and discrimination may have meant left-handers married later
and had fewer children. And, as left-handedness tends to run in families, so
the numbers of left-handers fell.

In his book Right Hand, Left Hand, McManus says research indicates that
where both parents are left-handed, the chance of their having a left-handed
child is 26.1 per cent. Where one parent is left-handed the odds are 19.5 per
cent, while if both parents are right-handed there is a 9.5 per cent prospect
of having a left-handed infant.

Charles Darwin, the pre-eminent Victorian scientist and creator of the
theory of evolution, believed left-handedness was inherited. The trait ran in
his family. His wife was left-handed as were two of the eight children who
survived long enough for their ‘handedness’ to be determined.

McManus says it may all be down to genes. He suggests that various
combinations of two genes may decide handedness, a D (dextral) and a C (chance
gene). In brief, those with two DD genes have no chance of being left-handed,
those with the CC genotype have a 50 per cent chance and those with the DC
genotype have a 25 per cent possibility.

"We think there’s a gene for right handedness which accounts for the
fact that most people are right-handed. And so most of us have a double dose of
this right-handed gene," says McManus. "The other gene is not a
left-handedness one in any simple sense. Instead, it is what we call a chance
gene. People who have a double dose of this chance gene do not end up as being
influenced one way or the other. They have a fifty-fifty chance of being right-
or left-handed.

Other theories for left-handedness include those based on environmental
influences and damage caused to the brain during childbirth. Recent research at
Queen’s University Belfast into the behaviour of foetuses in the womb found
that more 90 per cent sucked their right thumb. McManus believes this study
adds weight to his view that handedness is biologically determined.

Whatever the cause, what does being left-handed indicate in terms of brain
structure and intelligence-based abilities?

First let’s scotch one urban myth – that 20 per cent of members of high-IQ
society Mensa are left-handers. A spokeswoman says the organisation doesn’t how
many of its members favour the sinister hand.

Nevertheless, different parts of the brain control various functions. Basically
the left hemisphere controls the righthand side of the body and vice-versa. The
left also controls speech, language, logic and maths, while the right side
houses the creative ‘controls’ which relate to music, art and emotion.

Research at the University of California, published in March 2002, asserted
that left-handed people have a different, more flexible brain structure than
their right-handed counterparts.

"There really is a difference in brains that results in a more
symmetric brain in left-handers, where the two sides are more equal," says
research team leader Daniel Geschwind.

The findings were based on brain scans of 72 pairs of identical male twins.
The brains of identical right-handed twins were very similar in size and
structure, but when a left-hander was part of a twin set, the brains were

In another recent US study, by Toledo University in Ohio, researchers
Stephen Christman and Ruth Popper and described in the journal Neuropsychology,
gives evidence that left-handers tend to remember events better than
right-handers, who are better at recalling facts. The researchers believe their
work indicates the two halves of the brain work together in episodic memory
which helps left-handers recall events better than facts.

This won’t surprise the International Left-Handers’ Club’s director Keith
Milsom. He believes creative thinking and problem solving are the best features
of the left-handed.

So what about left-handed people’s predetermined suitability for certain
professions? The 27,000-member club is analysing questionnaires for its survey
of left-handedness. Results based on the 2,400 completed to date have
intriguing occupational indicators and show perceived advantages and
disadvantages in some careers and occupations.

Overall, 31 per cent of respondents feel left-handers are at a disadvantage
at work. Mostly this was due to practical issues such as workplace layouts and
tools designed for right-handers. However, some 16 per cent felt left-handers
have some advantages in their jobs.

Respondents feel left-handedness is an advantage to those working in IT, the
arts, music and sport. They perceive it to be a disadvantage in manual jobs,
healthcare, education and administrative jobs. However, some 45 per cent of
student respondents feel at a disadvantage because they favour their left hand.

The survey indicates that left-handers may not be evenly distributed across
different working environments. Some 39 per cent of respondents feel there are
less than average numbers of left-handers in their work groups while 34 per
cent say there are more.

Respondents who work in IT claim left-handers are better at design,
structuring and analysing data, visualisation in three dimensions and

Left-handed management consultant David Parry, who has worked in IT for more
than 25 years, agrees. "There is certainly a high proportion of
left-handers working IT – about 20 per cent, I reckon. I think left-handers are
better at data modelling and design. It was easy for me to grasp and apply data
analysis, information modelling and database design skills. It wasn’t so easy
to learn technical skills such as programming.

"Left-handers also have an edge in spatial awareness – which helps in
drawing a conceptual data model – and attention to visual detail," says

The Left-Handers’ Club survey does throw up some intriguing points. But it
would not stand up to stringent examination. For one, its respondents are
self-selecting and skewed towards females, especially those with left-handed children.
Yet the points it makes, allied to evidence from research, academic studies and
anecdotal sources, indicate there is room for progress in making life a little
more equal for those of a left-handed persuasion.

However strongly left-handed employees feel beleaguered by work stations,
telephones, scissors, notebooks and other items skewered in favour of the
righteous right-handers, it is not yet considered to have a serious impact at

As a spokeswoman from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development
comments: "Left-handedness is perceived to be a minority issue by society
and HR departments cannot really be expected to make this a serious issue.

"If the Left Handers’ Club believes it to be an issue it should perhaps
encourage its members to lobby their employers. If it [left-handedness] is more
relevant in certain sectors, then employers would welcome guidance. There is
little to suggest HR departments need to measure ‘handedness’ among staff,
although, common sense guidance about meeting the needs of left-handers would
be welcome."






All the presidents’ hands

Six of the 42 US presidents have been
left-handers – four of them in the past 30 years. Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan,
George Bush senior and Bill Clinton.

In the 1992 presidential election all three candidates (Bush
senior, Clinton, and Ross Perot) were left-handed.

Two left-handed presidents, Harry S Truman and Ronald Reagan
wrote with their right hands.

Among the 14 vice-presidents since 1900, but excluding those
who became president, only one, Nelson Rockefeller, was left-handed.

Famous lefties

Leonardo da Vinci painted La Giaconda
with his left hand. Sir Paul McCartney plays left-handed guitar while Jimi
Hendrix played a right-handed guitar upside down.

Napoleon, Charlie Chaplin and Albert Einstein were lefties. And
the second man to walk on the moon, Buzz Aldrin was left-handed.

Prince William is left-handed as was his great-grandmother
Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. George VI – a natural left-hander – wrote
with his right-hand, stuttered (a more common complaint among ‘lefties’) and
played tennis with his left hand. As did tennis legend John McEnroe, who
smashed his racquet with his.

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