x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

The curious creation of left-handed leaders

John McCain and Barack Obama are part of the fraternity of left-handed individuals singled out as social curiosities.

John McCain and Barack Obama, pictured, are part of the fraternity of left-handed individuals who have long been singled out as social and physiological curiosities.
John McCain and Barack Obama, pictured, are part of the fraternity of left-handed individuals who have long been singled out as social and physiological curiosities.

WASHINGTON // It has been called a "vast left-handed conspiracy": four of the last five US presidents were lefties. And no matter which candidate wins the White House come November, the next one will be, too. John McCain and Barack Obama are part of the fraternity of left-handed individuals who have long been singled out as social and physiological curiosities.

There is no way around it - lefties, who make up just 10 per cent of the population, live in a world designed for the right-handed. That might help explain why they are considered both a brilliant, and a troubled, lot. Some studies have shown lefties are more prone to schizophrenia and diseases of the immune system, more likely to be serial killers - Jack the Ripper was left-handed - and at higher risk of premature death.

But some of the world's most accomplished artists, including Leonardo da Vinci and Pablo Picasso, were left-handed. Using the left hand has been associated with higher intelligence and even higher wages, according to a 2006 study by researchers at Lafayette University and Johns Hopkins University (the findings applied only to men). Seven US presidents are known to have been left-handed: James Garfield, Herbert Hoover, Harry Truman, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H W Bush and Bill Clinton. A seemingly disproportionate number of recent presidential aspirants, including the former vice president Al Gore and John Edwards, Bob Dole and Ross Perot, among others, also favour their left hands.

It could be just a curious coincidence. But one researcher who has studied handedness (a preference for using hand over the other) for 30 years suggests that lefties may in fact be particularly well-suited to politics. Stanley Coren, a retired psychology professor at the University of British Columbia and author of The Left-Hander Syndrome: The Causes and Consequences of Left-Handedness, said lefties "tend to be pushier, more dominant, more manipulative, more self-centred - all the things that make them a good politician".

"If you think of the major dimensions in human beings, there is one dimension which you can call warmth or affection or compassion, and another which you call 'surgency', which is power or dominance," he said. "The research on left- handers shows that left-handers are less warm and are more orientated toward surgency." This seems to ring true when you consider which world leaders throughout history have been left-handed. Napoleon was, along with Alexander the Great, Charlemagne and Julius Caesar.

Writing with the left hand - the most obvious manifestation of handedness - used to be vigorously discouraged, in large part because of the long cultural, and linguistic, history of the "left" as something evil. Consider: the word sinister comes from sinistra, the Latin for left. The French word for left, gauche, has come to mean clumsy. The devil is usually depicted as being left-handed. In Christianity, the right hand gives the blessing; in Islam, the left hand is reserved for hygiene, and is thus considered unclean.

"Handedness has gotten all tied up in culture," said Mr Coren, who is right-handed himself but whose youngest son is a lefty. In many ways, being a lefty means a life of nuisances, if not outright hardships. Desks are designed "backwards", as are scissors and other tools (special stores sell merchandise tailored to lefties; Homer Simpson's neighbour opened one, the Leftorium, on the TV show The Simpsons). Signing a document often yields a smudge.

Mr Ford was considered a clumsy president because he would turn away from a podium the "wrong" way and bump into his aides; presidential protocols were designed for righties, Mr Coren said. George Bush senior complained of nearly flunking out of flight school because the cockpit controls were designed for righties. Science is still revealing new things about handedness, what it means and where it comes from. Last year, scientists at Oxford University identified the gene that appears responsible for left-handedness (it is thought to be the same one that determines which direction a person's hair swirls on the back of the head). Sam Wang and Sandra Aamodt, co-authors of Welcome to Your Brain: Why You Lose Your Car Keys But Never Forget How to Drive and Other Puzzles of Everyday Life, recently described in The Washington Post how some lefties may be excellent orators because of the way their brains is wired.

Language skills reside exclusively on one side of the brain in most people who use their right hands, they noted. "But one in seven lefties process language on both sides of the brain, possibly because using their left hands during childhood stimulated the development of the right half," they wrote. "So Reagan, Bill Clinton and Obama may have left-handedness to thank for their legendary speaking abilities." Kristy Ainslie, 31, a biomedical engineer at the University of California, San Francisco, spent all of first grade encouraged by her teacher to do something that did not come naturally: write with her right hand. It did not work.

Given the challenge it sometimes can be to be left-handed, she is not surprised that a lot of lefties have such high political aspirations. Take Napoleon, she says, or Fidel Castro. "You have a small group of people who visually don't look different, but have to fit into a world that isn't made for them," she said. "Of course they want to conquer that world ? and take control." Ms Ainslie, who founded an online group called Lefties for Obama, said it would be easier, even in jest, to play up Mr Obama's left-handedness as an asset if his opponent did not share the trait. She is not worried about the clumsiness sometimes attributed, right or wrong, to lefties, especially when it comes to the next president.

"I think if the dexterity of a president is the worst thing we have to worry about, then we have vastly improved upon our current situation," she said. eniedowski@thenational.ae