The march of the left-handers

David Cameron

It is estimated that only about 10% to 12% of people are left-handed.  Out of the seven most recent Presidents of the United States, five (Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George Bush snr., Bill Clinton and Barack Obama) have been left-handed.  The likelihood of that happening by chance is apparently 1 in 10,000.  Left-handers have been less to the fore among British political leaders.   Until David Cameron entered No. 10, there had only been two left-handed Prime Ministers: Winston Churchill and James Callaghan.  We now have a third. 

This may seem the basis for a trivia quiz question but it may have implications for how the country is led.  People who are left-handed, according to one research study, tend to think quicker than right-handers when playing sport or computer games.  Some research (though challenged) points to a correlation between left-handedness and high intelligence.  Left-handers are apparently to be found in disproportionate numbers among high achievers.  I have certainly noticed an above-average number of left-handers among politicians and, indeed, civil servants.  (Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O’Donnell, is, I think, left-handed.)   I tend to notice these things.  But then I would.

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About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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19 Responses to The march of the left-handers

  1. Dave H says:

    Where I work, there are five of us in the team and only one is right-handed. It makes a pleasant change that he’s the one that is always complaining about everything being set up wrong, because the rest of us have the equipment set up for left-handers.

  2. Lord Norton says:

    Dave H: The speed of your response – within seconds of the post appearing – shows just how quick left-handers can be!

    It must be rare to be in a situation where equipment is geared to left-handers. Right-handers rarely appreciate the practical problems faced by those who are left-handed. Still, we have moved on from the days when left-handers – the sinister people – were the subject of discrimination and it is only relatively recently that children are no longer forced to write with their right hands even if naturally left-handed.

    • Dave H says:

      It helps that I was drinking tea and taking a break from work, improves the response time a bit…

      I remember being at a party once where someone was having trouble opening a bottle of wine with a corkscrew. I just took the bottle and corkscrew, screwed it in and pulled the cork with no problem. It was only later in the evening that I realised that the host was left-handed and it was a left-handed corkscrew, which is why the right-hander was confounded.

      My mother used to tell my grandmother to stop taking pencils out of my left hand and putting them in my right, so I guess I have practical experience of that.

      I also used to get singled out at school, along with the few other left-handers, for special handwriting classes from the left-handed teacher. This happened with several schools and several teachers, so my handwriting picked up the worst of all styles and I finally refused to participate in the handwriting club at secondary school lest I end up with yet another method. It was an interesting discussion with the teacher the following morning, because she didn’t believe I wasn’t going to turn up until it actuallty happened.

      • Croft says:

        I suspect you would get a near perfect match with my posts and cups of tea – or phone conversations that only need 2% of my concentration!

        I’m somewhat ambidextrous, while I type and write right handed I play many sports with both hands (the better hand depending on the sport) eg I used to bat lh and bowl rh in cricket. I’m not sure how much I buy the quicker thinking element but in many sports being lh in a big advantage. Most opponents are less used to facing lh and in some key points fall at moments when lh is an advantage.

      • Lord Norton says:

        Croft: I hope this blog is not read by anyone with whom you have regular ‘phone conversations!

        You are in danger of getting into the territory of defining what we mean by ‘handedness’. It is quite tricky terrain, since relatively few people are wholly ‘left’ (write left-handed, kick left-footed, used left hand to play tennis, golf etc) but tend, like you, to be ambidextrous.

      • Geoff Cole says:

        I had dreadful handwriting as a child.. As a parting gift, my head of English at school – also a southpaw, gave me a left oblique italic fountain pen and a copy book. I have not looked back since 1961. When a leaving card or any other work that requires a fair hand is required, I am invariably asked to write the dedication. Don;t worry. The right = left handed pen can work wonders for you
        Geoff Cole

  3. Jonathan says:

    When I was young, I showed a tendency to use my left hand, but in my mother’s words the Catholic nursery school I was attending encouraged me to switch to using the right (still some notion of it being sinister?) I now write with my right hand, and as a result my handwriting was terrible throughout my education! (These days I rarely write anything.) I’ve always been useless at sports, but I do prefer to throw a ball with my left hand. For many other tasks I’m fairly ambidextrous – the hand I use depends on the one I first learned the task with.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Jonathan: Oh dear, it’s rather worrying that the tendency to try to get left-handers to write with their right hand has carried on for quite so long.

      Of course, there may be other explanations for terrible handwriting! 🙂

  4. Senex says:

    Prime Minister! Take note…

    Muslim Cleric: How to Eat and Drink in Islam

    Foreign Secretary! Don’t forget to burp.

  5. Huzzah for us left-handers! (Nick Clegg is a southpaw, too, isn’t he?) Wristwatch placement is often a good indicator of hand preference as well.

  6. Chris K says:

    It does explain a lot. On two occasions in the past month have I been within handshaking-distance of Mr Cameron and both times he missed me. Clearly I offered the wrong hand.

  7. Frank W. Summers III says:

    Lord Norton,

    My sister graduated from University with a perfect grade point average. While all of us graduated with Latin Honors and two others (not I) graduated Summa cum Laude she was the only one to achieve such a distinction. She is also the only one to be left-handed. Sothere is another deviation to notice.

  8. Dave H says:

    LN: I think all left-handers are ambidextrous to a degreee, simply because we learn to live in a right-handed world. I will naturally favour my left hand (or foot, if kicking a ball) but can do many tasks competently with either side. I suspect that if left-handers were raised in an environment where everything was designed for them, they’d struggle with the right-handed stuff in the same way that right-handers struggle with our stuff.

    One area of definite advantage is in baseball, where batting left-handed is worth a quarter of a second head-start when running to first base due to the momentum from swinging the bat assisting the turn to that side. I think that is one situation where naturally right-handed players try to learn the left-handed way.

    In the late 70s, early 80s, many of the top tennis players were left-handed, with Borg being the notable exception.

  9. Senex says:

    I noticed this a while ago too:

    Crystal May Explain Origin of Life’s Left-Handedness
    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/04/100421121501.htm

    I remember playing a prank on a colleague many, many years ago when the first desktop PCs appeared (Win 3.1). If you left your desk you were supposed to lock your workstation. After a while his dereliction of duty began to seriously annoy me so to teach him a lesson I right-clicked on his desktop and swapped his left/right mouse buttons.

    He was knocking on a bit and a newbie to desktop computers so we all watched him trying to figure out what was going on. It was hilarious! Needless to say he found out who did it and he gave me such a dressing down that even now I can recall the abuse he levelled at me. I never did it again.

    On another occasion and in a different time and place we would attend a progress meeting on a Friday and the manager would always annoyingly be late (Gustav Käser Training?)

    I noticed that he would either start the session from his left or his right and he tended to go to the left. So on one occasion when things were not going too well and everybody was pretty downbeat I suggested taking bets on which direction he would go when he arrived just to lighten things up a bit. He arrived, late, and gave everybody a stern ticking off before proceeding around the table from the left.

    I won the bet and the manager to this day does not know why we were smirking at one another as we left the meeting. Are you that predictable as a manager; should you plan your activity before the meeting starts?

    • Dave H says:

      I find it easier to learn to use right-handed devices, so although my mouse is to the left of the keyboard, the left-hand button still has the same function that would be expected by a right-handed person. Interestingly, I can happily use a conventional mouse in my right hand without mirroring the buttons as one might expect.

      Oh, and if you really want to confuse someone, dismantle his desk telephone and swap the 123 with the 789. We did this at work once and it was fascinating to watch the victim attempt to dial – the finger would approach the correct key based on muscle memory and then the brain would override and act on the visual information. Because calculators and PC keyboards are the other way up, it’s not obvious.

      Useless factoid – if you watch Michael Jackson videos, he always spins the same direction. If you ask people to spin around on one foot, they’ll be consistent with choice of foot and direction. (I’m sure there’s a route back to politics here, talking about spin…)

    • Lord Norton says:

      Senex: I think I would be a little wary of being one of your work colleagues. 🙂

    • Lord Norton says:

      Carl.H: There are several other, usually disputed, links between left-handedness and certain conditions, including longevity, wealth, and sexual orientation.

      • Carl.H says:

        Absolutely and this is the point, if you go looking for something you can draw conclusions from the most insignificant evidence.

        There is a weight of evidence, including genetic, to suggest left handedness does play a role in mental illness.

        http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/6923577.stm

        If, like me, you can accept that the line between genius and insanity is very thin then it would be easy to conclude that left handed people have equal chance of being either or both.

        There are various studies which show that left handers suffer from more anxiety, depression, deliquency and acts of violence, including suicide. The suggestion is that the side of the brain used most by left handers is the emotional one which would explain the above.

        I do not believe that there is enough evidence to suggest that being left handed gives anyone an advantage over anyone else in any field of expertise at present.

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