By Melissa Roth
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, July 4, 2008
John McCain may veer to the right, but make no mistake: The Republican presidential contender is a born lefty, just like his Democratic counterpart, Barack Obama.
Statistically speaking, based on their representation in the general population, a left-handed leader should emerge only once every eight presidents. Yet, come January, five of our most recent seven presidents will have been lefties. (That's counting Ronald Reagan, who allegedly converted to the right hand but used his left to point, shoot, and slap Angie Dickinson in one movie.) In fact, the presidency has been in the hands of lefties for 22 of the past 34 years, during all but the Carter and George W. Bush administrations.
Why the disproportionate number of left-handed leaders? Is a port-sided president more apt to right the ship of state?
Scientifically speaking, what this country may need is an ambidextrous leader.
"Those with a strong right or left hand are more likely to cling to beliefs and discount new information that contradicts those beliefs," says Stephen Christman, a professor of behavioral psychology at the University of Toledo. "Mixed-handers are better able to see both sides of the story. If you want change, you might be better with a mixed-handed candidate."
After examining hundreds of photos of the future Republican and Democratic nominees, Christman found that McCain appears to be strongly left-handed, while Obama uses his right hand for certain tasks, including hand-to-mouth (eating a sandwich or pizza). Even today, many cultures prohibit use of the left hand for eating from a communal pot or performing certain customs. In Indonesia, where Obama spent four years as a child, travel guides warn visitors not to use their left hands (it's considered rude), particularly when touching food or drink. This might explain why the candidate uses his right hand to eat finger food but his left to eat with utensils.
Or perhaps it's a way to fake out an opponent. Obama's personal aide, Reggie Love, who plays basketball with the candidate most mornings, told the New York Times, "A lot of people still don't know he's left-handed, so he can get to the basket and get his shot off, even though he's not the most explosive or tallest player on the court."
Life as a lefty also may instill some of the necessary qualities of a leader, social scientists say.
"Most left-handers of the older generation, and some of the present, were exposed to quite a bit of direct pressure" to use the right hand, says Michael Peters, professor of psychology at the University of Guelph in Ontario, "and their persistence in doing what they wanted to do speaks of determination and some independence of mind."
Forced to "adjust to a right-handed world, [left-handers] feel more marginal," Howard Gardner, professor of cognition and education at Harvard, suggests in an e-mail. "Marginality has its costs, but it typically allows you to see the world differently from other people," he explains, "and that can be a strength. Many artists, architects and other creative types . . . are left-handed, more than one would expect from chance. In the best of circumstances, this 'extra vision,' so to speak, may help you to discern trends more easily and to be less likely to be caught up in the conventional wisdom."
Gardner says McCain's left-handedness may have contributed to the former Vietnam POW's "stubbornness, his willingness to undergo torture, and his maverick status within the Republican Party, at least until the last few years."
As for Obama, Gardner writes, "his life is so unusual that it would be very surprising if he did see the world like everyone else. I think that he has been able to see beyond the partisan divides of 1968-present, precisely because his experiences have been so different and he has made the most of them. The same for McCain, Clinton, Ford and other recent presidential southpaws."
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Just two decades ago, the prospect of an overtly left-handed leader raised eyebrows. "Do We Want a Left-Handed President?" intoned a mock-serious headline of a December 1988 essay in The Washington Post's Outlook section, shortly before lefty George H.W. Bush was to raise his right hand to take the oath on Inauguration Day.
The "left-hander syndrome" theory was on the rise then; news media were awash in stories connecting the trait to accidents, psychological disorders and learning disabilities.
The kickoff was a 1980 study of health statistics, which found a significant drop-off in the percentage of lefties among older people. After a follow-up study of baseball records, in which the percentage of southpaws also diminished with age, Canadian psychologist Stanley Coren came to the conclusion that they were dying prematurely.
Two years later, Coren published a book popularizing his theory that left-handedness was a sign of an underlying syndrome, a red flag for a kind of early brain damage that predisposed a person to a palette of problems that could surface throughout his life. And sure enough that very spring, when the first President Bush entered the hospital for an overactive thyroid gland, a condition often caused by stress, one prominent medical expert instead offered this explanation: "People with left-handedness are more prone to auto-immune thyroid disorders."
The left-handed syndrome was largely debunked by subsequent studies throughout the 1990s. As is often the case with follow-up reports, their results rarely made headlines.
Lefties not only are not dying off, but one reason for the recent surge in left-handed presidents could be an overall leftward shift in the population. Of Americans born a century ago, only 3 percent were likely to identify themselves as left-handed, according to a National Geographic survey. Today, estimates range from 12 to 16 percent of the population, depending on how handedness is measured.
Yet particularly for those born before 1950, including McCain, the odds of persevering through school as a lefty were slim. Teachers back then systematically switched the "sinistrals" to right-handed writing -- one explanation for why they appear to "die out" with age.
For ABC political correspondent George Stephanopoulos, being a lefty meant persevering against more than just your typical authority figures. "My grandfather thought writing and eating with your left hand was a sign of evil," he says. The Devil is often depicted as left-handed, so many grandfathers associated the trait with evil, but Stephanopoulos's was a Greek Orthodox priest, and though he didn't take it too seriously, "he would play-slap my hand at the dinner table."
Left-handedness always comes up on the campaign trail, the former presidential aide has noticed. "When Clinton was president, people mentioned it all the time."
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The brain and the body are cross-wired, so it's often assumed that all left-handers are "right brain"-dominant. Yet neuroscience has revealed that the majority of lefties are left-hemisphere-dominant, just like righties. In neuroimaging studies, however, the brains of lefties tend to be more symmetrical, an indication that certain functions are less restricted to the left lobe. Motor skill is one such function; speech can be another. Obama alternates between hands while gesturing as he speaks, which some scientists speculate is a sign that language dominance may be divided between the two hemispheres of the brain.
Symmetrical brains tend to have more connections between the two hemispheres, which can allow for "shared processing," according to Christman.
In cognitive studies, the lefties turn out to be better at integrating stimuli presented to the two hemispheres of the brain, which can help with "episodic memory," the ability to recall details about events and their context. Greater interaction between the hemispheres also comes in handy for reading faces and judging intentions. A 2002 study found that left-handers were substantially better at detecting deception than were right-handers, exhibiting greater sensitivity to the subtleties in communication.
While from a survival perspective it helps to have quick access to the right hemisphere's evolutionary role as crisis response center, too much connecting with the right hemisphere might make the next president overly skittish. In a series of experiments, Christman and his colleagues have found that mixed-handers are more risk-averse than strong handers. The brain's right hemisphere tends to specialize in "withdrawal" responses, activating when a person looks at images of angry faces or spiders. This response was adaptive, facilitating early humans' ability to retreat from a potentially threatening situation.
Greater "cross talk" between the two sides of the brain also can make it difficult to perform two independent tasks at once -- the simultaneous "pat-the-head, rub-the-tummy" drills, for example. So the next president may want to avoid too much multitasking.
No matter what the outcome of the November election, the once-marginalized lefty will take center stage in the White House. Melissa Roth is the author of "The Left Stuff: How the Left-Handed Have Survived and Thrived in a Right-Handed World."