If someone approaches you from your left side and makes a request, are you more or less likely to grant that request than if he approaches you from your right side?
If you’re thinking, “What kind of a stupid question is that?”, and you think it would be an equally stupid question no matter which ear it was spoken into, then you probably haven’t heard of something called the “natural expression of hemispheric asymmetries,” and more specifically something called “the right-ear advantage.”
Basically, it boils down to this: scientists have known for a long time that humans have a preference for listening to verbal input with their right ears.
Not only that, if they hear something with both ears, they’ll pay more attention to whatever portion of the sound comes into their right ears.
But what hasn’t been clear is whether this privileging of the right ear (which probably occurs because the bulk of linguistic processing takes place in the left side of the brain, which is where the input from the right ear is delivered) has any influence on human behavior.
Turns out that it does—or at least, it does within crowded, hot, loud Italian night clubs.
Psychologists Daniele Marzoli and Luca Tommasi of the University Gabriele d’Annunzio in Italy recently conducted several studies in three nightclubs across the city of Chieti.
In the first, they simply observed 286 clubbers while they were talking, with loud music playing. They found that 72 percent of the interactions occurred on the right side of the listeners, confirming the right-side bias they were expecting to find, but which had previously mostly been demonstrated within controlled laboratory conditions.
Next, they approached 160 clubbers and mumbled something almost inaudible (and meaningless in any event), then waited for each subject to turn his or her head and offer a particular ear. Then they asked them for a cigarette.
They found that 58 percent of the subjects offered their right ear for listening, compared to 42 percent who offered their left, with only women showing a consistent right-ear preference, and no connection between the number of cigarettes they were able to bum and which ear received the request.
But when they intentionally addressed 176 clubbers in either their right or their left ear, they obtained significantly more cigarettes from the 88 people into whose right ears they spoke than people into whose left ears they spoke.
Of the 88 they approached on the right, 34 gave the researcher a cigarette. Of the 88 approached on the left, only 17 complied.
Why nightclubs? Because they were so loud that the researchers could approach and talk directly into someone’s ear without seeming odd.
All of these results together, the researchers say, confirm a right ear/left brain hemisphere advantage for verbal communication, and a specialization of the brain for approach and avoidance behavior—which to me implies that if you’re really interested in hearing someone’s request, you’re more likely to turn your right ear toward them. If you don’t really care, you’re more likely to turn your left.
Marzoli and Tommasi note that some research has indicated the left hemisphere of the brain is tuned for positive emotions, while the right side is tuned for negative ones—so if you can get your request into the left side of someone’s brain, it may fall on more fertile ground.
(The study is entitled “Side biases in humans (Homo sapiens); three ecological studies on hemispheric asymmetries,” which I mention only because I find it interesting that in their title the authors felt it necessary to give the scientific name for humans, Homo sapiens, presumably to distinguish this particular species of human from all the other species cluttering up the joints. Which makes me wonder if Homo neanderthalensis is still to be found in the nightclubs of Italy. Enquiring minds await further developments!)
So, kids, begging for that extra ice-cream cone, students seeking an extension on a term-paper deadline, employees looking for a raise: talk to the right ear.
And since this preference is shared by animals, dog owners might want to issue commands from their animals’ right sides, as well.
Cat-owners can continue talking to both sides. Or a brick wall. The response will be pretty much the same.