I wanna hold your hand... gack, not like that, the other way.
July 2, 2010 5:45 AM   Subscribe

Holding hands/knitting fingers seems to feel "right" only one way, despite symmetrical hands. Why is this?

Quick, and don't think about it--put your hands together and interleave your fingers. One of your thumbs is on top. Re-interleave your fingers so your other thumb is on top. If you are like everyone else I've informally polled, this alternate interleaving feels weird and uncomfortable.

My girlfriend and I have had the same experience when holding hands--regardless of which side we're holding hands on, it feels good to hold hands in such a way that her thumb is on top. If my thumb is on top, it feels really off and uncomfortable. A quick test with another couple at dinner last night produced the same result--her thumb gravitated to the top, and if his thumb were on top, it was uncomfortable.

I can understand why there might be a default "hold" in heterosexual handholding, given that female hands are generally smaller than male hands, and that size difference could make for a more harmonious pattern one way (though I query what would happen with same-sex holding or where the woman has a larger hand). But among the two lefties and two righties, we all had our left thumb on top when we interleaved our own hands, and doing the opposite was uncomfortable.

This is a very small sample set, and I presume there are people who prefer their right thumb on top--but there does seem to be a preference one way or the other.

Has anyone else noticed this? Is there an explanation for the preference, despite the fact that our hands are nearly symmetrical?
posted by dam1975 to Health & Fitness (32 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I just did it. Right thumb on top. Left felt weird.
posted by amro at 5:50 AM on July 2, 2010

People generally have strong preferences for a variety of things involving their hands and feet, and they may have genuine ear or eye dominance as well.

But many people are cross-dominant to some degree. In your case, you noticed that both right handed and left handed people preferred their left thumbs on top, but it doesn't have to correspond with handedness. I'm right handed, right footed, left eye dominant and prefer my left thumb on top.
posted by maudlin at 5:53 AM on July 2, 2010

I just tried with my mom. I guess I'm a "thumb on top person" but she doesn't mind either way!
posted by lucy.verdad at 5:54 AM on July 2, 2010

You can train yourself to prefer the other way. I did this with folding arms when I was in high school. I found that I naturally folded right over left and then spent a few weeks consciously folding left over right until it felt natural. Eventually I switched back.
posted by plinth at 5:56 AM on July 2, 2010

I remember when Mrs. Quizicalcoatl was in med school she came home one day and told me that she'd learned it was somehow genetic. I don't know if it was in a text book or whether it was just one of those little tidbits of information professors like to dish out sometimes. I'll see if I can find a citation for it on the google.

Also: I'm right thumb on top.
posted by Quizicalcoatl at 5:56 AM on July 2, 2010

Hmmm. For me, there isn't much difference. When I tried this experiment with my own hands, the right thumb on top was slightly less comfortable, but that difference vanished if I rotated my right hand back slightly. So, if I have a preference, it's pretty slight.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:57 AM on July 2, 2010

I don't know where I came across the stat (years ago) but I think left-thumb-on-top is the wide majority. I don't think it's determined by handedness, either, at least from what I've seen anecdotally. (I spent a week or two casually surveying friends back in the 90s, for fun when I got to thinking about this same thing)

Datapoint: left thumb on top, left-handed, right-eyed.
posted by Devils Rancher at 5:57 AM on July 2, 2010

And here it is.
posted by Quizicalcoatl at 6:00 AM on July 2, 2010 [4 favorites]

I suspect this is one of those things where you have a slight natural preference to do it one way, and the more you do it, the more right it feels, so you do it that way all the time.
posted by Metroid Baby at 6:01 AM on July 2, 2010

I've definitely noticed this before. I'm a right-handed, left thumb on top person. A google search for "thumb dominance" or "hand clasping" brings up some results. I did find that the the Annals of Human Biology 26 (1): 39-48 Jan-Feb 1999 has an article "The genetics of hand-clasping - a review and a familial study." Here's the abstract:

"Hand-clasping refers to the preferential tendency for individuals to clasp the hands together. This paper reviews the previous literature on family data and twins, and reports new data. In this study about 55% of the population are left-hand-claspers, 44% are right-hand-claspers, and the remaining 1% report that they have no preference or are indifferent. Familial data suggest that hand-clasping may be under genetic control: although the data do not fit any straightforward recessive or dominant Mendelian model, they are compatible with the type of model invoking fluctuating asymmetry which has been used to explain the inheritance of handedness and arm-folding. It is possible that hand-clasping, as for example arm-folding, may be an idiosyncrasy due to or influenced by physical bilateral differences in the hands. All data together are suggestive of a genetic basis, although environmental influences are also evident."

I also found this article from the University of Delaware bio dept. which concludes that "hand clasping is unsuitable for classroom use as an illustration of simple Mendelian genetics" because "it is not a simple one-gene, two-allele genetic character."
posted by radiomayonnaise at 6:18 AM on July 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Wow, Quizicalcoatl, that is cool.

I'm right-handed and put right thumb over. I don't know which eye is dominant.

I recently met my mother's first cousin (mom never knew she had any cousins) and we both have a bend in our little fingers.
posted by mareli at 6:19 AM on July 2, 2010

Right thumb on top, right-handed, right-eyed.

And yet I vote left.
posted by Faint of Butt at 6:25 AM on July 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

Left handed, right thumb on top.

Though I have noticed when I hold hands with my husband, I keep my thumb and my index finger *together*, so that it goes his thumb - my thumb - my index finger - his index finger. It feels more comfortable to me.
posted by Lucinda at 6:34 AM on July 2, 2010

I had a boyfriend--probably my best--who did a funny little off-sides knitting of our pinkies when we clasped hands. It had a strange but soothing effect, and was intensely personal. I can't describe it without actually seeing/doing it (and I don't have anyone at hand to try it with) but I've only managed to do it with one or two other people who didn't recoil in discomfort. So it's not just thumbs.
posted by Yoshimi Battles at 6:48 AM on July 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

My own hand-clasping and arm folding can go either way. When I sit and cross my legs, however, I can only sit comfortably with my left ankle in front. As for holding hands with my husband, he's missing some fingers, which makes holding hands with him very comfy. For me to hold hands with the five-fingered hand feels odd.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 6:50 AM on July 2, 2010

Right handed, right thumb on top. When I'm holding hands with another man, I still prefer my thumb on to, whichever hand is being held. (And as an aside, I prefer his hand in front of mine.)

Not sure how much that helps your hetero data though, as I have smaller hands than even most of the girls I know.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 6:52 AM on July 2, 2010

Re: holding hands with another person, I think the more comfortable thing is when the person who is shorter has his/her arm behind the other person's arm (because of the angles involved), which also creates a natural angle to have his/her hand positioned so that his/her thumb is in front. IT'S MATH IS WHAT
posted by shakespeherian at 7:04 AM on July 2, 2010 [3 favorites]

shakespeherian: YES, YES, A THOUSAND TIMES YES. I've been slowly training my boyfriend to give me the arm-in-back position; the other way feels awkward and uncomfortable and makes me hyper-aware of my arm.

(And another data point here: hetero, man-sized hands, right-handed, left thumb on top when clasping my own hands, thumb underneath when holding a man's hand).
posted by julthumbscrew at 7:18 AM on July 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

GenjiandProust said:
When I tried this experiment with my own hands, the right thumb on top was slightly less comfortable, but that difference vanished if I rotated my right hand back slightly. So, if I have a preference, it's pretty slight.
I tried this for myself, and to an extent it worked. So I looked carefully at the situation.

I naturally prefer left thumb on top. I clasped my hands as felt comfortable and noticed that my left wrist was rotated inwards, and my right wrist outwards. Just a little bit, but some. I switched to right thumb on top, and everything felt awkward - but I noticed I was still keeping my left wrist rotated inwards, and right wrist outwards.

When I consciously mirrored the forearm position of what felt comfortable then right thumb on top felt totally natural.

So! I posit that the reason a certain thumb on top feels 'wrong' and the other 'right' is that we're only switching our hands, not our entire arm setup. This is groundbreaking work in the clasping field, and I am looking to receive a grant. My paypal account is available upon request.
posted by komara at 7:25 AM on July 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

I naturally place my left thumb on top, but it doesn't feel "wrong" or "uncomfortable" to put my right thumb on top.

Interestingly enough, now that I've been going back and forth for a while trying to see what the differences are, my brain can't decide which thumb should go on top and I am just crashing my fingers together and bending some of them backwards, which is uncomfortable.

AskMe: 1. My brain: 0.
posted by kataclysm at 7:34 AM on July 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

I read a long time ago that right-handed heterosexual couples tend to hold hands with the mans left hand to the womans right hand. If one of them is a rightie and the other a leftie, they usually hold non-dominant hands. (Sorry, no link, and I don't know how reliable this is.) I'm right-handed and perfer my left thumb on top. If both of these are common, it could lead to a pattern of woman's thumb on top. You could informally survey your friends some more to check.
posted by nangar at 7:41 AM on July 2, 2010

Yeah, it's genetic. 23andme recently started including this in their genetic profiles (no joke).
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:44 AM on July 2, 2010

I'm right on top, the mister and the kid are left on top. This has been such an interesting post!
posted by Ruki at 7:54 AM on July 2, 2010

23skidoo: I disagree. If I put my 'right' thumb on top and then twist my wrists the opposite ways then it feels just as wrong as if I put my 'wrong' thumb on top.
posted by komara at 8:23 AM on July 2, 2010

On holding hands: it's a height thing. If you're taller than your partner, your hand is likely to be backwards-facing, while the shorter person's is likely to be forwards-facing. (applies to hand-holding without interleaving fingers.)
posted by ms.codex at 8:38 AM on July 2, 2010

I think the more comfortable thing is when the person who is shorter has his/her arm behind the other person's arm (because of the angles involved)

On holding hands: it's a height thing.

I think it's less of a height-of-the-people thing, and more of a height-of-the-hand thing. Whoever's hand hangs lowest when standing with the arm relaxed, gets to be in back. If you have a mix of a shorter person with shortish arms, and a taller person with longish arms, the taller person might get to have their hand in back.
posted by vytae at 8:50 AM on July 2, 2010

Right handed, right eyed, left thumb on top.
posted by decathecting at 9:40 AM on July 2, 2010

Actually, in my experience whose thumb feels most comfortable on top depends on who is tallest. In a typical hetero relationship, it's usually going to be the guy, his hand will naturally fall a bit higher than the woman's, and so his thumb on top feels most natural to both (less subtle strain). When I've dated ladies taller than me, the reverse was more comfortable... except the first time, when it took a little getting used to, because my habit was being reversed.
posted by IAmBroom at 10:24 AM on July 2, 2010

For clasping my own hands, I'm a right-handed, left-thumbed individual.

I remember hearing once that left-thumb dominance was common in gamers (remember, on most videogame console controllers, the left thumb does the finer work of manipulating a D-pad or analog stick while the right thumb sticks mostly to hitting buttons).
posted by Zephyrial at 10:38 AM on July 2, 2010

Absolutely a height thing with hand holding, the person who's elbow needs to bend in order to match hand heights must have their hand in back, which puts their thumb on top. If you stand on stairs so that her hand is higher than yours, I bet it feels better to have your hand in back and your thumb on top.
posted by anaelith at 12:35 PM on July 2, 2010

To expand on what Komara said above, my take on it is that the hand whose thumb ends up underneath tends to be the imdividual's dominant hand, because substantially more articulation of that hand and wrist are required in order to complete the clasping so that it feels comfortable.

Watching myself do this a few times, it seems that my right (dominant) hand is sort of "leading" the motion, with my left hand serving as a sort of "catcher's mitt" for the duration of the hand-docking procedure, with the left thumb simply locking down on top once contact is made.
posted by killdevil at 1:40 PM on July 2, 2010

Huh, when I first noticed the thumb thing as a kid, I preferred right on top, and so I assumed that applied to all right-handers. Can't really see why the opposite would apply to some people, but it's something about the bases of the fingers interlocking that feels weird.

But I conditioned myself to have no preference for hand-clasping (for maybe half my life now, as part of my hopes to be more ambidextrous), by going with left thumb on top as often as possible. Now left on top feels maybe 95% as natural as right.

What about crossing arms? Going with my right forearm out in front feels completely awkward. Leg/ankle crossing is completely neutral.

There's also the "ready" position for sprinting. I think most people prefer left foot in front, but I'm not positive. And I don't know if it's conditioning from needing the right hand free for writing, but I can't stand putting a phone on my right ear.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 4:32 AM on July 3, 2010

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