In 2016, Vice reported that nondominant hand masturbation (also known as “left-handed wanking”) was a thing. Various explanations were presented for the practice, including the thrill of using a less familiar hand to caress one’s genitals. However, a number of masturbators insisted that the practice was the result of using their right hand to browse online porn while, as it were, spanking the monkey. Although a team of enterprising UK psychologists recently concluded that people generally use their dominant hand to masturbate, as a social anthropologist—and a southpaw—I was intrigued by the notion that digital technologies might be changing patterns around handedness.
Oddly, this topic has been the subject of very little inquiry, although a moment’s reflection would suggest that the encroaching digitalization of our daily lives is having an impact on handedness. After all, most of us spend far more time typing and texting than writing—activities that require the involvement of both hands, at least if you want to do them proficiently. Now, this isn’t to suggest that handedness is obsolete. If some people are choosing to switch hands while masturbating to online porn, it’s presumably because the manual precision required to use a mouse greatly exceeds that of banging the bishop. But how handedness matters may be changing in conjunction with technology itself—and especially the move from analog and manual technologies to digital and automated ones.
In a world of computers, mobile phones, automatic doors, driverless cars, and voice-activated appliances—not to mention the fully virtual environment envisioned by Meta—what role does handedness play?
The problem is that we still don’t fully understand the drivers of handedness in humans, although it’s a characteristic unique to our species and our direct ancestors, given that our closest living primate relatives don’t exhibit consistent hand preferences to anywhere near the same degree.
Still, technology is clearly an important part of the story of human handedness. First, it’s primarily through the study of their tools that we know our closest hominid ancestors were predominantly right-handed. In fact, it seems to be the case that tool use itself was a partial driver of handedness. Studies of nonhuman primates suggest that a manual preference for one hand over the other becomes more stable when tools are used—especially those requiring a precision grip. In other words, as our tools became more sophisticated, handedness became increasingly important. There is strong evidence that right-handed preference was firmly established by the appearance of the Neanderthals—a view backed up by asymmetries in skeletal remains.
Of course, our lifestyles today are more technology dense than ever, but while the nature of the technologies we use daily has changed radically over the past 50 years, our measures of handedness haven’t caught up. If asked, most people would use the hand they write with to determine their handedness. The problem is that this is a spectacularly poor measure of actual handedness, given the ways in which cultural prejudices against the left hand are inflicted on writing practices around the world. Compounding the problem is the fact that our primary measure of handedness is an activity that many of us now spend almost no time doing.
Although academic measures of handedness are more sophisticated, the current standard is a modified version of the Edinburgh Handedness Inventory, developed in 1971 by the Scottish experimental psychologist Carolus Oldfield. The original inventory involved assessing participants’ overall handedness based on which hand they used (or which hand was dominant) for 20 activities: writing, drawing, throwing, using scissors, a comb, a toothbrush, a knife without a fork, a spoon, a hammer, a screwdriver, a tennis racket, a knife with a fork, a cricket bat, a golf club, a broom, a rake, striking a match, opening a box, dealing cards, and threading a needle.