A prevalence of left-handers

Max Vasilatos writes me to report thar she has “this notion that a disproportionate number of actors [she sees] on TV are left-handed, but that seems unlikely”, and she connects her impression to what I’ve called the frequency illusion:

The illusion in which a word, a name, or other thing that has recently come to one’s attention suddenly seems to appear with improbable frequency shortly afterward (Wikipedia link)

(and often for extended periods of time after that). Surely Max is right — about the source of her impression, not about the extent of left-handedness in tv actors.

The label frequency illusion is mine (from an 8/7/05 Language Log posting); the phenomenon is also known under the more colorful label Baader-Meinhof phenomenon (a name taken from an instance of the phenomenon),  from a 1994 comment on the St. Paul Pioneer Press’s online discussion board, by someone who noticed hearing the name of the German terrorist group the Baader-Meinhof Gang twice in 24 hours.

(There is a Page on this blog –“Illusions postings”, under “Linguistics notes” — with links to postings on the many illusions.)

My original posting connected the phenomenon to two well-known cognitive biases in psychology: selective attention (once you’ve noticed something, you are more attentive to occurrences of it than you were before) and confirmation bias (in which you’re inclined to collect instances of the phenomenon, as confirming your hypothesis about its frequency, and discount the many disconfirming instances in your experience).

What Max noticed was tv actors writing with their left hands, an indication of a very strong bias towards the left hand; many people are not fully right-handed (I am one), but only a fairly small number of these have a strong preference for writing with the left hand (I’m incapable of managing this), and these people are easily detected, if you see them write.

Men are somewhat more likely than women to be left-handed, but the evidence for other groups (like homosexuals) tends to be equivocal. There is certainly no reason to suppose that tv actors are more likely to be left-handed than the general population.  Nevertheless, I am myself inclined to be selectively attentive to people writing with their left hands, and since these days most of my experience seeing people writing comes from tv, I share Max’s impression about tv actors, inaccurate though it surely is.

For what it’s worth, I have a strong impression that gay pornstars are disproportionately left-handed, but I have absolutely no way to examine the hypothesis, and although sites about these men supply many stats about them, handedness is not one of them..

One Response to “A prevalence of left-handers”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    Max entertained the ideas that actors are creative types, and that creative people are disproportionately lefties, so …

    Meanwhile, there are anecdotes suggesting that linguists are disproportionately left-handed — but how to test the hypothesis?

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