Study: Lefties Rare in Victorian England

When researcher Chris McManus came across archived footage of people waving at a camera in the Victorian era, he used it to determine the rate of left-handedness in Britain 100 years a go. He says left-handedness was far less common in that society than it is today.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

In this week's Science Out of the Box, we look at what a simple wave of the hand may tell us about life in the Victorian era.

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LYDEN: The impulse of bystanders to wave at a television camera or mouth hi, mom, might strike viewers at home as a symptom of modern society. But it turns out people have been frantically waving their arms at cameras since the advent of motion pictures, as demonstrated by a footage that was filmed in Northern England at the turn of the 20th century.

And that's good luck for University College London psychology professor Chris McManus, who studies people's preferences for one hand over the other. It's what's known as handedness. It turns out that waving is a good indicator of whether you're a leftie or a rightie because it's more spontaneous than other motions.

Professor CHRIS McMANUS (Psychology and Medical Education, University College London): You could imagine parents saying to their children, don't you write with your left hand. But very few parents are going to say you wave with your right hand, as you should. It's not a behavior that's subject to social pressure.

LYDEN: Now, many societies have strict, even religious, rules about which hand does what. But McManus was interested in how the rules might change within one society over time. The number of lefties hasn't been well documented through history, but these old films gave McManus the necessary evidence to measure left-handedness in England a hundred years ago and compare that with today's Brits.

So McManus went through those old films frame by frame, counting the number of left-handed wavers. Then he took the study a step further, classifying the hand-wavers according to age.

Prof. McMANUS: What we've found was that left waving was much commoner amongst the older ones in those films than in the younger one.

LYDEN: And McManus observed that among children on the films or the generation born around 1900, only 3 percent were lefties. So what accounts for so few left-handed kids in that era? McManus suggests a few likely culprits.

Prof. McMANUS: One is that the Industrial Revolution is happening. So suddenly, people are coming in out of the fields and the country. They're getting into the cities and they're working in the mills and the factories. And that would have involved machinery, which, to a large extent, like modern machinery would have been designed with the righthander in mind.

LYDEN: And the other major factor: good old-fashioned peer pressure, as more children enters school than ever before.

Prof. McMANUS: Children were sat in serried ranks in the desks and would be taught to write. But then suddenly at that point it will be very obvious that there was a lefthander sitting there amongst the great mass of righthanders. But still that lefthander would have had troubles because, of course, the pens will all have been steel pens, which you dip in the ink. A lefthander has to push them across so the lefthanders would have blotted the paper, then they would have (unintelligible). And those are classic situations in which children become stigmatized as being clumsy or could perhaps a bit stupid.

LYDEN: But the stigma attached to these schoolhouse blues may have had lasting effects, says McManus. And the number suggests that these social pressures have eased considerably. About 11 percent of all British people are lefties these days.

Prof. McMANUS: Left-handedness must have some advantages attached to it or it wouldn't survive in the evolutionary sense.

LYDEN: So with social pressures stripped away, the next call for a show of hands might find a lot more self-pause(ph) - raising theirs.

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