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The brains of southpaw presidents

January 24th, 2009, 12:52pm by Sam Wang

Tomorrow I’ll be on Good Morning America Weekend, talking with David Wright about the mysterious abundance of left-handed presidents. (watch it here) Barack Obama is left-handed – as were Bill Clinton, the first President Bush, Ronald Reagan (maybe), Gerald Ford, and Harry Truman. What’s going on?

Sandra Aamodt and I have written about this before [PDF] [annotated]. An unusual number of left-handers use both sides of their brain to process language (one in seven), significantly more than the rest of the population (one in 20). So one might be more likely to expect enhanced communication skills in some left-handers. Think of Obama, Clinton, and Reagan – but not Bush I. There’s also a tendency for left-handers to solve problems in creative ways. These could be useful traits in a president.

For the statistically minded: is the frequency of southpaws significant? Probably; five out of the last twelve presidents is significantly different from the general incidence of 10% by Fisher’s exact test.

In that calculation I am not including Reagan. He wrote with his right hand but is said to have been naturally left hand dominant.  However, I do not know of any convincing documentary evidence for this claim. However, this does demonstrate an important point – before World War II, left-handedness was discouraged in American schools – in Japan, it still is. So only limited ddata are available because of this past bias against southpaws.

Air date is Sunday, near the end of the first half-hour of the program. The show’s start time varies. It’s mostly 8-9AM Eastern, 7-8AM Central, and 6-7AM or 7-8AM Pacific. Here’s an old list of station affiliates. Check your local listings!

Tags: 2008 Election

3 Comments so far ↓

  • Nicholas J. Alcock

    Dear Sam,
    What is the relatioship(if that is the right term) of left handedness with intellect, sociability, empathy, courage, decisivenes
    and other skills and talents. Are you suggesting
    a new bar to high office that precludes right handed people? I find this strange from an intellectual who believes in equality?

  • Summer Glau

    Dear Nicholas,
    Statistical Analysis of data does not in any way imply that one group will be segregated. He said nothing of the sort in fact he made no suggestions at all for how to use this information. Why make the jump to “You want to discriminate against rightness so you are a bigot”?

    Information is just Information…

  • Nicholas J. Alcock

    Dear Summer Glau,
    I find your response interesting. I did not logically argue that
    Sam’s analysis implied bigotry. This is your intrepretation and not mines. You did not
    address my fundamental point that political leadership requires very many skills and talents.
    These aptitudes may reside in left handed, right handed or indeed ambi dexterous individuals. I was attempting to tease out from Sam’s neurological perspective if these skills could be attributed largely if not solely to left handed people? I think this is a fair point?

    Arguably, perhaps the greatest US president in the 20th century is FDR? Is a left handed or right handed individual?

    Finally, Information is Information? You can
    say the same thing about the Amtrak timetable from DC to Baltimore? I rest my case.

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