Why You're Afraid Of The World To Your Left

A new study says there's a spatial bias to how we assess what's dangerous.

People think the space to their left is a dangerous one, according to new research. In a study that will be published in a forthcoming issue of the journal Management Science, University of Utah researchers tested whether people's assessment of risky situations—such as crossing a street in front of an oncoming car or deciding to evacuate after an earthquake hits a nearby city—differs based on what direction the threat comes from.

In a series of four experiments, they found that people tend to be more wary of threats coming from the left, whether it's an earthquake or disease outbreak in an adjacent city, an oncoming car, or a threatening-looking dude sitting a few seats away in a public space.

People "feel that a threat approaching from their left has a higher likelihood of affecting them than a threat approaching from their right," the researchers write. For instance, in one experiment, participants looked at a map of two cities that were 200 miles apart. Some were told that they lived in the city on the left side of the map, and some in the city on the right. When told that an earthquake had just struck the neighboring city, people were less worried about being affected by an aftershock if the initial earthquake happened to the right side of their city on the map.

In another experiment, they filmed 390 pedestrians crossing a one-way street without a walk signal in Bucaramanga, Colombia. People who crossed with traffic coming toward them from the left moved more quickly, even though traffic was moving toward them at the same pace as those who saw cars on their right.

In yet another experiment, the researchers created fake dog poop (science!) and placed it in the middle of the sidewalk. When people walked by the poop on their left side, they gave it a wider berth than those who saw it on their right.

The researchers hypothesize that this spatial bias might have something to do with reading from left to right or the specialization of the brain's hemispheres (which is correlated with being left- or right-handed), but they didn't control for these factors. They did suggest that if people tend to take risks coming from the left more seriously, they may underestimate the level of threat posed by a rushing car or train coming from their right. Something for urban planners to remember, perhaps, when considering proper wayfinding in the cityscape.

[Image: Looking left and Crossing street via 1000words / Shutterstock]

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  • Skye Nathaniel Schiefer

    I would guess that it's due to written language moving from left to right and that extending to all kinds of culture, like Super Mario Bros. or the tracker on a video player, to the point where we understand movement from left to right as natural. When a thing we wish to avoid exists to the left of us, we give it more of a buffer because we subconsciously expect it to move closer to us, to the right, because that is the direction the world moves.

    I wonder whether people whose languages are written from right to left exhibit the opposite behavior.

  • I think it could be related to lefty and righty. For righty, since their right hand side is a stronger end and the left is a weaker end, they will feel more confidence and comfortable to response if the attack is strike from their right. On the other hand, left side is wide open with no protection. Look at how Bowser easily took Princess Peach from Mario's left hand side.