Why do people walk on the left or right?

07 January 2014

Question

As a local guy, I'm disabled and use a mobility scooter to get around a lot and crossing Christs Piece and New Square especially, in Cambridge, the vast majority of people seem to walk on the right hand side of the paved area. I was in town a few days ago and it was much quieter and everybody walked on their left. I've noticed these people walking on the right for ages that it just struck me as being more obvious that it was different at that slightly different time of day. Why do we tend to prefer to walk on the right or walk on the left?

Answer

Chris - I think there are two aspects to this. I don't know what you guys think, but I mean for my fourpence, I would say first and foremost that in the same way that fish make a big shoal and they all swim in one sort of direction once someone's shown everyone where to go. I think that an element of this is that once one group of people are doing one thing, people tend to follow. So, if everyone happens to be on the left then more people are going to go on the left than on the right because we do tend to - because we're social animals - copy each other. But also, there is an intrinsic brain bias towards certain parts of the world we live in, in terms of how we attend to it and how we tend to favour it. Dominic who's very interested in computing and website design will know this very well that anyone who designs websites is told, "Put the most important content..." Where Dominic?

Dominic Ford - On the left hand side because people read from left to right. The first thing they see is on the left.

Chris - Absolutely, so your most important content at the top and on the left because that's where people visually attend to more. And also, for some reason, we think that that part of the brain that's observing that vision on the left is also more receptive to information being presented in that way.

Dominic - I think there's also a social aspect to walking on the right side of the road because hikers are actually often told to walk on that side because then you've got the traffic like on the left coming towards you. So, you can see the car that's about to come very close to you. Whereas if you walk on the left, you can't see the car coming up behind you.

Chris - Good point. Les, are you running people down? Is that what it is?

Lez - No. I deliberately go on the left just for the hell of it.

Chris - I like that. You know, if you're a racehorse then horses actually perform much better on races run in one direction than the other. They tend to have an intrinsic bias for one side over the other. The majority of horses I think are right-legged and so, they prefer to run with that leg as their leading leg. If you run them in the opposite direction, they're at something of a disadvantage. I don't know why they should have that particular bias because we think humans have a side bias because as Dominic pointed out, there's language in the brain. We think that language being on one side of our brain makes that side of the brain dominant and that might be the reason.

Comments

I do not know why, but Hsüan Tsang (629AD) recorded that in India while "coming and going these persons are bound to keep on the left side of the road till they arrive at their homes." <a href="http://ia802305.us.archive.org/29/items/siyukibuddhistre01hsuoft/siyukib...(page 74)</a>

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