Tech is changing what it means to have a dominant hand
This article was originally published in Wired on February 9th, 2023. As Wired’s exclusive publication rights have ended, I’m reposting it here. Handedness is the focus of a chapter in my book Silent but Deadly: The Underlying Cultural Patterns of Everyday Behaviour, for those interested in reading further about the evolution of handedness and theories on the universal stigma attached to the left hand.
IN 2016, Vice reported that nondominant hand masturbation (also known as ‘left-handed wanking’) was a thing. Various explanations were presented for the practice, including the thrill of using a less familiar hand to caress one’s genitals. However, a number of masturbators insisted that the practice was the result of using their right hand to browse online porn while, as it were, spanking the monkey. Although a team of enterprising UK psychologists recently concluded that people generally use their dominant hand to masturbate, as a social anthropologist—and a southpaw—I was intrigued by the notion that digital technologies might be changing patterns around handedness.
Oddly, this topic has been the subject of very little inquiry, although a moment’s reflection would suggest that the encroaching digitalization of our daily lives is having an impact on handedness. After all, most of us spend far more time typing and texting than writing—activities that require the involvement of both hands, at least if you want to do them proficiently. Now, this isn’t to suggest that handedness is obsolete. If some people are choosing to switch hands while masturbating to online porn, it’s presumably because the manual precision required to use a mouse greatly exceeds that of banging the bishop. But how handedness matters may be changing in conjunction with technology itself—and especially the move from analog and manual technologies to digital and automated ones.
In a world of computers, mobile phones, automatic doors, driverless cars, and voice-activated appliances—not to mention the fully virtual environment envisioned by Meta—what role does handedness play?
The problem is that we still don’t fully understand the drivers of handedness in humans, although it’s a characteristic unique to our species and our direct ancestors, given that our closest living primate relatives don’t exhibit consistent hand preferences to anywhere near the same degree.
Still, technology is clearly an important part of the story of human handedness. First, it’s primarily through the study of their tools that we know our closest hominid ancestors were predominantly right-handed. In fact, it seems to be the case that tool use itself was a partial driver of handedness. Studies of nonhuman primates suggest that a manual preference for one hand over the other becomes more stable when tools are used—especially those requiring a precision grip. In other words, as our tools became more sophisticated, handedness became increasingly important. There is strong evidence that right-handed preference was firmly established by the appearance of the Neanderthals—a view backed up by asymmetries in skeletal remains.
Of course, our lifestyles today are more technology dense than ever, but while the nature of the technologies we use daily has changed radically over the past 50 years, our measures of handedness haven’t caught up. If asked, most people would use the hand they write with to determine their handedness. The problem is that this is a spectacularly poor measure of actual handedness, given the ways in which cultural prejudices against the left hand are inflicted on writing practices around the world. Compounding the problem is the fact that our primary measure of handedness is an activity that many of us now spend almost no time doing.
Although academic measures of handedness are more sophisticated, the current standard is a modified version of the Edinburgh Handedness Inventory, developed in 1971 by the Scottish experimental psychologist Carolus Oldfield. The original inventory involved assessing participants’ overall handedness based on which hand they used (or which hand was dominant) for 20 activities: writing, drawing, throwing, using scissors, a comb, a toothbrush, a knife without a fork, a spoon, a hammer, a screwdriver, a tennis racket, a knife with a fork, a cricket bat, a golf club, a broom, a rake, striking a match, opening a box, dealing cards, and threading a needle.
In 1971, this list probably made sense—if you were British or Australian, that is. (Americans, for example, are not known for their abiding love of cricket and employ the inefficient ‘cut and switch’ method to eat.) Half a century later, the more culturally specific items on the inventory have been scrapped, but none of the activities listed are those we engage in daily, with the exception (well, one hopes) of using a toothbrush or a spoon. Instead, as I noted at the outset, many of our most frequent activities require the use of both hands.
Perhaps the primary exception is the computer mouse—but as any lefty knows, the hand used to control an external mouse is a poor proxy for handedness, because many of us become adept at using the mouse right-handed. For my own part, although I’m strongly left-hand dominant on the traditional Edinburgh Handedness Inventory, I actually prefer to use an external mouse right-handed, because that’s how it was always set up by default on the first Macs I encountered in the late 1980s. In fact, I would speculate that lefties are currently at a distinct advantage in a digitalized world because we’ve had to develop finer motor skills in our nondominant hand—try turning the crank on a standard can opener with your left hand and you’ll see what I mean.
Consolidating the left-handed advantage is the QWERTY keyboard itself. Despite its ubiquity, the QWERTY layout is relatively inefficient, in part because there are more letters on the left side of the keyboard than the right. This effectively means that 57 percent of typing is carried out by the non-preferred hand of the majority of the population, which was one of August Dvorak’s main criticisms of the layout—Dvorak, of course, being the inventor of QWERTY’s main rival, the Dvorak keyboard. That the QWERTY keyboard became dominant despite its inefficiencies is a good example of the irreversibility of standards once introduced. According to Jan Noyes, in the end it was cheaper and easier to stay with a functional, albeit inferior, keyboard than to retrain a population who had become used to its quirks.
Given the ways in which handedness and technology co-evolved, it makes sense that as our technologies evolve, our patterns of handedness will change. Now, this is not to suggest that our biological propensity toward right-handedness will necessarily disappear or that left-handedness is likely to become more common in future. Instead, my prediction is that the cultural forces that have inhibited the development of the left hand will dissipate and those people who are functionally ambidextrous will rule the day. As the French sociologist Robert Hertz noted well over a century ago, ‘There is thus no need to deny the existence of organic tendencies towards asymmetry; but … the vague disposition to right-handedness, which seems to be spread throughout the human species, would not be enough to bring about the absolute preponderance of the right hand if this were not reinforced and fixed by influences extraneous to the organism’.
The rise of digital technologies suggest that Hertz was probably correct. For example, a study of one-handed text entry among right-handers found that those who preferred using their left hand for the task (presumably because of a desire to hold the phone in their dominant hand) were just as proficient as those using their right hand. In effect, both lefties and righties seem to become more adept at using their nondominant hand when externally motivated to do so—and digital technologies, with their indifference to organic asymmetry, seem to have provided the necessary motivation.
It seems clear that digital technologies, which increasingly require fine motor skills in both hands, are influencing handedness. Although further research is clearly needed, the main questions relate to how much and in what direction. And while I predict that the future is ambidextrous, in the meantime us lefties can bask in the knowledge that at least for a while, with our superior motor skills in our nondominant hand and the global domination of the QWERTY keyboard, we’re the right handers after all.