Can women tell left from right?
August 9, 2005 3:28 PM   Subscribe

Do women find it more difficult to immediately distinguish left from right than men?

Some of my female friends find it difficult to grasp in a fast manner which is the right side and which is the left one, and thus they usually cheat by clenching one fist or using some mental shortcut.

Has any of the feminine users around here ever had this problem, and if so, did you find out what the cause was? Was there a fix ?

I suspect this awkwardness is due to the difference rooted in our incipient stage, when men used to hunt and thus had better orientation, but still I cannot explain how something as obvious as knowing left from right can elude some of my (otherwise very intelligent) female friends.

Thanks for your help
posted by Masi to Science & Nature (41 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Anecdotal evidence: well, among my sister and me, it's running exactly 50/50. My left-right distinction abilities are very good (possibly because I'm left-handed and learned at an early age that that was the "different" side to write on?), while my sister has a hell of a time keeping it straight.

Having said that, the other people I've known with left-right distinction issues were pretty evenly split between male and female. Interestingly, most of them (again, male and female alike) had all been diagnosed with dyslexia of various types and severities, so my hunch has long been that it has more to do with that than with gender.
posted by scody at 3:36 PM on August 9, 2005

oh, and I meant to say that the one person I knew who had it the worst A) happened to be male, and B) learned to work around it by spreading out his hands (or picturing them) to see which hand made the "L" between forefinger and thumb. Because L = left, of course.
posted by scody at 3:39 PM on August 9, 2005

I don't have this problem, but for three years in the '90s my parents moved from the US, where driving is done on the right, to Australia, where driving is done on the left.

The entire time that she lived in Australia, my mom essentially reversed her understanding of left and right. A turn across traffic -- technically a right turn in Australia and a left turn in the US -- was called a "left turn" wherever she was driving. It was very confusing for me (her daughter), but it did the trick for my mom.

As for me: I'm pretty good at left/right, but many three-dimensional spatial things I can find more difficult than I probably should.

I suspect there's a lot of variation among men and women on this, if a statistical difference does exist. There maybe plenty of men who have trouble with left-right differences, plenty of women who have them down pat, but a collective average that indicates a tendency for women to have more confusion about left-right.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 3:41 PM on August 9, 2005

Here's some published research on differences in spatial navigation between male and female humans. I haven't found any research that specifically looks for differences in left/right descrimination ability.
posted by mbrubeck at 3:42 PM on August 9, 2005

I'm have this problem sometimes. I figure it's either due to my ginormous corpus callosum or mild dyslexia. But mostly I just enjoy saying "ginormous corpus callosum".
posted by cali at 3:43 PM on August 9, 2005

I'm female, and I'm horrible at immediately distinguishing left from right. It only happens if I have to do it very fast -- for example, if I'm riding in a car and the driver asks me which way to turn at a quickly approaching intersection.
posted by statolith at 3:56 PM on August 9, 2005

I know several people who've had this problem, but like scody, the shared trait seemed to be dyslexia, not gender. [Actually, now that I think about it, only one of them was female.] I certainly haven't noticed this trait to be more common among women.
posted by ubersturm at 4:00 PM on August 9, 2005

I'm female, and I don't have any troubles with right or left, but I do have troubles distinguishing East and West on a map. I always have to recite North-South-East-West before saying, "New York is on the East coast of the US."
posted by rhapsodie at 4:03 PM on August 9, 2005

male: I am hopeless. If you ask me to turn right, I sometimes have to think about it for five seconds before I can figure out which way you mean, and when you add in "your right" vs. "my right," I'm completely lost. I've never been able follow dance instructions, because they say, "right foot, left foot, right, right, left..." And I'm still trying to figure out that first "right foot."

I tend to link directions to objects: turn towards the table; walk away from the hallway, etc. Not ideal, but it's much easier for me than left/right. I'm not dyslexic (as far as I know), but I have a hard time with mirrors. I can't tie a tie while looking in the mirror. It mixes me up. I'm better at doing it by feel.

Strangely, I'm pretty good at moving around imaginary objects in my head. It's real world objects -- involving SIGHT -- that screw me up. When I'm trying to figure out right from left, it sometimes helps me to close my eyes.
posted by grumblebee at 4:11 PM on August 9, 2005

Anecdotally, my left-handed wife has problems with this, as do two of my left-handed friends. I don't remember any occurences of this among right-handed people I know, including myself.
posted by Kickstart70 at 4:12 PM on August 9, 2005

I'm female and it has always taken me a little while to tell left from right. I often quickly pinch my fingers together as if I were writing. I guess that muscle memory kicks in faster than whatever part in my brain is supposed to be telling me this. FWIW, I also have trouble with East/West, but I am not dyslexic at all.
posted by gokart4xmas at 4:16 PM on August 9, 2005

On preview--I'm right handed.
posted by gokart4xmas at 4:18 PM on August 9, 2005

I'm female, and my left/right and east/west orientation is not the greatest. I usually go "north/east/south/west" when looking at a map, and when thinking about right and left, I usually go "well, I'm right handed, so that's my right" and then go from there.

However, I can distinguish between up and down fairly easily.
posted by apple scruff at 4:43 PM on August 9, 2005

A quick google on "gender spatial relationships left right" had this hit near the top.
posted by phearlez at 4:52 PM on August 9, 2005

related thread

and i'm terrible at telling left from right. :)
posted by clarahamster at 4:54 PM on August 9, 2005

It is well known that men are better at spatial tasks than women (at least in our culture), and it is an active area of scientific research. I believe people think it has something to do with testosterone's effect on brain development. Here is a BBC page talking about spatial cognitive differences, and at the bottom of that page is a link to a "Sex ID test" that will tell you if you perform more like a man or a woman. Sexist people will say that this is empirical evidence that women are worse drivers than men.

Phearlez's link is like what I'm talking about. For the record, I'm female and have absolutely no problem with left and right.
posted by emyd at 4:56 PM on August 9, 2005

Male, left-handed: I have always had to stop and think to distinguish my left from my right. I often have to consciously make the connection between the direction I need to go and which hand I write with. It's gotten a little better as I've gotten older, strangely. And I've always been able to immediately distinguish between East and West on maps.
posted by Chanther at 4:59 PM on August 9, 2005

I'm female and I have this problem with driving or giving directions. I know what I mean but I say it wrong.

I don't have any trouble with orienting myself with north/south/east/west though.
posted by luneray at 4:59 PM on August 9, 2005

I'm a left-handed guy and always have trouble with left and right too. Maps i don't have a problem with either or any graphical representations--it's personal. I ascribe it to my left-handedness.
posted by amberglow at 5:03 PM on August 9, 2005

I'm a (somewhat) left-handed male (meaning I write with my left hand, but do most other things right-handed) and I have no trouble with left and right. My girlfriend, on the other hand (who is right-handed), has a hell of a time with it. If I'm driving and ask her which way to turn at the next intersection, she seems to ignore me when, in fact, she's trying to figure out which is which. Worse, she gets it wrong about a third of the time: she'll say "right," I'll get into the right lane, and she'll scream, "no, right", which I have learned means "left." She is an otherwise bright, normal individual with an excellent sense of direction (she never, ever gets lost), so I'm pretty flummoxed by it.

For what it's worth, I've known a few other women who had trouble with left-right, and one man (who insisted that you point when giving him directions as he drove).
posted by uncleozzy at 5:05 PM on August 9, 2005

I (female) cannot immediately distinguish between left and right - I have to hold my thumb at a 90 degree angle from my other fingers to see which hand makes an L. Lately, I try to remember what side I begin to read and write on, but that takes a millisecond longer than an immediate reaction, and my impulse is to make a hand-L. My driver's ed teacher put rubber bands around my wrists and would snap them when I hesitated to follow his left/right directions.

I don't know if it's related, but the only subject I absolutely sucked out in school was geometry - I could just not easily conceptualize abstract spatial concepts. Strangely enough, I have a great sense of direction in the real world - I just have trouble telling you about it.
posted by bibliowench at 5:23 PM on August 9, 2005

Female, right-handed, and I have always had trouble with left/right. As a kid, I taught myself a physical gesture so I could set the table correctly, as well as not getting in trouble in school. My male programming professor claimed left/right difficulty was common in programmers. I'm good at other spatial concepts, so I don't think it's spatial, and I'm not dyslexic, although my typing makes me look like I'm dsyelixc.
posted by theora55 at 5:30 PM on August 9, 2005

female, right handed [though left footed and left eyed, I have mixed dominance] and I have a terrible time with left/right, east/west, clockwise/counterclockwise, horizontal/vertical which I mentioned in that other thread. I don't know which way to turn a key in a lock or turn the water faucet handle, it's just trial and error every time.

I wave one hand around when I'm writing directions so that I won't get it wrong AND so that I won't forget which direction I'm writing down [left or right] between the time I think "turn right at the gas station" and the time I commit it to paper/email. I'm great with maps, and good with visual understanding, I just can't match the word left to the direction left, and so forth.
posted by jessamyn at 5:32 PM on August 9, 2005

Male - don't know my left from my right without thinking about which hand I write with. Oddly, I almost always immediately know north, south, east and west.
posted by Carbolic at 5:35 PM on August 9, 2005

I'm male, right-handed, and I need to think about it before I can tell you which of my hands is the right. If you ask me to look to the right, I'll get it wrong half the time. Like jessamyn, I always have to guess when turning keys and handles, but if you show me a map I have no problem figuring out where I am and turning the right directions at the right intersections to get where I'm going.

I'm good at remembering routes, but I don't really connect the places to words (After I go somewhere once, I usually know which corner to turn at, but not the name of the street I'm turning onto or the name of the direction I'm turning.)
posted by aneel at 5:57 PM on August 9, 2005

I'm right-handed, so I immediately and subtlely clench my right bicep when someone gives a direction. If the direction was "right", I turn in the same direction that my clenched bicep is on. If the direction was "left", I turn in the opposite direction. I'm female.
posted by iconomy at 6:47 PM on August 9, 2005

female, right handed, excellent with spatial orientation. know lots of guys who have no sense of direction at all.
posted by judith at 6:50 PM on August 9, 2005

I'm right-handed, and have always had a bit of trouble telling left from right. And I get lost all the time -- I can't hold directions in my mind at all.

I think there must be something genetic about it -- I know which of my relatives also have this problem. Most of them are men.
posted by Badmichelle at 7:01 PM on August 9, 2005

Female, left-handed, and I have to do the L thing to know my left from right. When I'm driving and someone says to turn right, I usually turn left. I think it's because I'm used to using right-handed tools, so in my head directions are reversed.
posted by strikhedonia at 7:35 PM on August 9, 2005

Female, and I have never once confused/had trouble determining my left and my right. Then again, I had a good kindergarten teacher who made us do a left-right song first thing every morning. I'm also very good at mirroring movement and saying "point your right foot" while demonstrating with my left--from years of demonstrating dance movements to little kids.

And, my brother is just terrible at directions. He'll ask which way to turn out of a doorway, repeat the direction, and then choose the opposite when he gets there.
posted by CiaoMela at 7:43 PM on August 9, 2005

I'm male and I could never keep it straight as a kid. I used to put my shoes on the wrong feet when I was very little.

I only learned when I learned to drive. It was obvious then, because you're always driving on the right side.

At this point though, I always know. So it was, at least for me, something you can learn when you actualy need to know it.
posted by delmoi at 8:28 PM on August 9, 2005

Although the particular details are fuzzy, women's brains are, overall, more bilaterally organized than men's. The most widely-accepted causation is, as stated above, the effect of testosterone during fetal development. The outcomes, in terms of real-world abilities, are less easy to pin down.

Outside of a journal peer review, sure, there's enough evidence to guess that women's brains, with greater interhemispheric communication. might be a little slower at distinguishing right/left, east/west (I have issues with the latter). But there's no proof I know of, as yet.
posted by nev at 9:00 PM on August 9, 2005

Female, left-handed, and had a terrible time of it as a child, along with general spatial difficulties (esp. judging distance, which I think is also related to general trouble with gauging time). Lots of work and concentration have ameliorated but not completely eradicated the problem. I think the lefty stuff has more to do with it than my sex, but I'm not familiar enough with the literature on the subject to be certain. Though really, I should get to be, given that it's a problem that so intimately affects me.

(Also, I don't have a particular fix -- just awareness of the problem, and so intense focus and concentration when I'm in a situation where it's particularly important. Also, I leave the surgery, architecture, and sculpture to better hands -- ie, I know my limitations, and have tried to make intelligent decisions about my career and activities based on avoiding them. Though, funny enough, I had several delivery jobs in college, and did fine with them. You better believe I mapped out my routes ahead each and every time, though!)
posted by melissa may at 9:19 PM on August 9, 2005

I pretend to do the pledge of allegiance (but nowadays just a slight motion as if i'm going to do it is enough for me know right from left)
posted by amberglow at 9:46 PM on August 9, 2005

This thread fascinates me. I'm female. I've never had any trouble with left/right and compass points. As far as know, my close friends and family all do fine with them too. I had no idea till now that so many other people find them so difficult.
posted by tangerine at 11:16 PM on August 9, 2005

Female, right-handed, no problem telling left from right. And I haven't noticed that any of the women in my family have a problem with it either. I don't make any gestures or think about it, I just know.

I am, however, horrible with compass directions and tend to get lost easily when driving in a new city (or my own city, really).
posted by LeeJay at 4:21 AM on August 10, 2005

I'm female, right handed and I have never had problems with left-right, directions, driving or spatial orientation when emerging from a subway station.

My husband is terrible, to the point where, if he says left, I turn right.
posted by gaspode at 5:34 AM on August 10, 2005

My wife is right-handed, and has a terrible time with attaching the words "left" and "right" with the actual sides of her body. Weirdly though, she has an excellent sense of direction and is the superior navigator in our relationship. She prefers that I do the driving, which leads to many moments like the one uncleozzy described above.

One bizarre (and highly annoying to me) result of this right/left confusion happens every time we approach an intersection where roads join at less than a 90 degree angle (I call them "Y" intersections). I am driving (generally) and ask her which way to go - she says "Go straight".

Translated, this means "Go in the direction I want, although I refuse to say it out loud because I can't work out which word to use". This leads to a verbal scuffle, because I am sure to guess wrong about whether "straight" means "bear to the left" or "bear to the right" this time around.
posted by Irontom at 5:56 AM on August 10, 2005

Female, right-handed. No problems with left/right or directions. I love maps.
posted by JanetLand at 5:58 AM on August 10, 2005

I don't have a problem with right and left:

Female, right-handed for writing but ambidextrous for anything else. I'm also left foot and left eye dominant. I don't have dyslexia but I do suffer from dyscalculia (numbers instead of words - makes math a pisser).

I'm also a damned good map read and navigator.
posted by deborah at 1:07 PM on August 10, 2005

I have examined hundreds, if not thousands of people both male and female for handedness and left-right confusion, and I haven't noticed this. It's part of my routine neurologic exam.

I feel fairly confident that if women were significantly different from men in this regard I would have noticed it by now, the same way that I have noticed (for example) that people on even modest doses of topiramate are usually unable to recite the months of the year in reverse order without an error.
posted by ikkyu2 at 2:52 PM on August 11, 2005

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