When it comes to worker pay, being right-handed gives you … well, the upper hand. Many commentators were surprised by a recent study in the Journal of Economic Perspectives showing that lefties earn between 10 and 12% LESS each year than righties. The article, authored by Harvard economist Joshua Goodman (who didn’t disclose if he is a righty or lefty), is the first to demonstrate income inequality between right-handed and left-handed workers.
Of course this raises the inevitable question: why? This discrepancy might be related to how left-handedness correlates with other attributes. For example, Goodman showed that left-handed people “have more emotional and behavioral problems, have more learning disabilities such as dyslexia, complete less schooling, and work in occupations requiring less cognitive skill.”
One interesting exception was that lefties born to left-handed mothers did not demonstrate lower cognitive abilities than righties.
Goodman’s research analyzed 5 data sets taken from both the U.S. and England to examine how hand preference affects cognitive skill and earnings over time. He discovered that between 11 and 13% of the total population is left-handed, a finding confirmed by prior research.
Historically, lefties have been marginalized in society. During the Middle Ages, for example, left-handed people were sometimes thought to be possessed by the devil. The medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides even argued that lefties should not be ordained as priests. And in 1903, the Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso wrote the following: “What is sure… is, that criminals are more often left-handed than honest men, and lunatics are more sensitively left-sided than either of the other two.”
Even the word “left” itself has pejorative undertones when you consider its roots. The term is derived from the Old English word “lyft,” which meant “idle, weak, or useless.”
Today, however, “left-handedness has come into vogue,” Goodman argues, “with modern proponents who argue that left-handedness is overrepresented among highly talented individuals.”
Interestingly, 3 of our last 4 presidents have been left-handed, with George W. Bush being the only righty of the group. A whole host of highly successful people, like Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey, are also lefties. And new research suggests that left-handed people are more creative than their mainstream righty counterparts.
There are, at least, 2 widely publicized studies suggesting that there is a higher proportion of lefties among super smart people. A study from 1986 indicated that this minority is very prevalent among students who get the highest SAT scores, while a 1980 study found that there was a larger percentage among gifted primary school students.
So it’s strange that Goodman’s study contradicts so much of this. Yet as Peter Orszag argued in a Bloomberg View response, Goodman’s research doesn’t automatically debunk the earlier findings either.
“It is still possible that lefties are disproportionately represented among the very top of the skills distribution; the databases Goodman uses don’t contain enough detail about these extremes to say either way. The SAT study, for example, examined those in the top 1 out of 10,000, and IQs above 131 are found only in the top 2 percent of the population.”
So where does this leave us? It seems that among the successful crowd, being left-handed might correlate with certain advantages. But down here among the rest of us, statistics indicate that righties may have the upper hand.