Associate Professor of Public Policy
The Wages of Sinistrality: Handedness, Brain Structure and Human Capital Accumulation
Goodman, Joshua. "The Wages of Sinistrality: Handedness, Brain Structure and Human Capital Accumulation." HKS Faculty Research Working Paper Series RWP12-002, January 2012.
Left- and right-handed individuals have different brain structures, particularly in relation to language processing. Using five data sets from the US and UK, I show that poor infant health increases the likelihood of a child being left-handed. I argue that handedness can thus be used to explore the long-run impacts of differential brain structure generated in part by poor infant
health. Even conditional on infant health and family background, lefties exhibit economically and statistically significant human capital deficits relative to righties. Compared to righties, lefties score a tenth of a standard deviation lower on measures of cognitive skill and, contrary to popular wisdom, are not over-represented at the high end of the distribution. Lefties have
more emotional and behavioral problems, have more learning disabilities such as dyslexia,
complete less schooling, and work in less cognitively intensive occupations. Differences between left- and right-handed siblings are similar in magnitude. Most strikingly, lefties have six percent lower annual earnings than righties, a gap that can largely be explained by these differences in cognitive skill, disabilities, schooling and occupational choice. Lefties work in more manually intensive occupations than do righties, further suggesting that lefties’ primary labor market disadvantage is cognitive rather than physical. Those likely be left-handed due to genetics show smaller or no deficits relative to righties, suggesting the importance of environmental shocks as the source of disadvantage. Handedness provides parents and schools a costlessly observable characteristic with which to identify young children whose cognitive and behavioral development may warrant additional attention.