Why do left-handers earn less than right-handers?

Posted on December 13, 2016


It’s popularly believed that left-handers are uncommonly blessed with talents like high intelligence or an artistic temperament, but this is a myth. In fact, some studies even show cognitive deficits in lefties (though other research has failed to confirm this) and in terms of their take-home salaries, surveys suggest that left-handers lag behind the right-handed by as much as ten per cent, possibly indicating a difficulty in competing under commercial conditions.

Marcello Sartarelli from the Universidad de Alicante attempted to replicate this deficit under controlled laboratory conditions using a simulated labour market. Even though lefties actually competed more strongly than expected, they also exhibited some intriguing performance quirks associated with personality that set them apart from the right-handed majority.

A total of 432 people, consisting of 8% who are lefties, were recruited to play a game that captured two aspects of labour market success: putting in the appropriate effort and cutting good deals. It was a complex game but boiled down to some participants offering employment contracts to pairs of other participants who played the roles of the “workforce” in the simulation.

Each workforce pair selected the contract that they thought would generate the best outcome for them. One member of the pair was then selected to see if they would be a high-effort worker in attempting to fulfil the contract – which would run down their own resources, but hopefully result in higher overall returns – or lesser effort was put in, hoping their partner would do the rest. The combination of a wisely-chosen contract, and the right amount of effort to get it done well, was the key to succeeding and making money.

Participants had to also complete a measure of their tendency to think things through rather than jumping to conclusions (“the cognitive reflection test”) and unsurprisingly – participants who came out a winner tended to score higher on this measure even though it was a complicated bargaining game.

The lefties scored as highly on this cognitive test as the right-handers and they even brought home as much bacon in the simulation.

Although there was a tie between lefties’ and right-handers’ performance, Sartarelli found some intriguing interactions between personality and performance that were unique to the left-handed sample.

The data showed them to earn more when more extraverted, and less when more neurotic, whereas the right-handed group – ten times as large, meaning that effects should be easier to detect – showed no such association between personality and earnings. This might suggest that left-handers fall into certain types, some of whom are well-suited to the kinds of decisions found in a labour market, some less so; further work will need to tease out this result. Sartarelli also found that on the whole, left-handers were more agreeable, and left-handed women slightly more extraverted, as compared with right-handers.

With the results obtained, what are we to make of the real-world finding that left-handed people suffer in earnings? Perhaps the less competitive left-handed personality profile – introverted and less emotionally stable – has negative effects which accumulate over the long run. Higher agreeableness is associated with lower earnings, so this may play a part.

On the basis of Sartarelli’s data, any of these avenues of research appear more plausible than the overly simplistic hypothesis that southpaws don’t have what it takes to excel in the marketplace.

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Source material from British Psychological Society

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