Director, Cambridge Embodied Cognition and Emotion Laboratory; Reader in Experimental Social Psychology and Fellow of Jesus College, University of Cambridge
Spatial Agency Bias

Progressive, dynamic and forward-thinking—these are personal qualities that are highly sought after in practically all social circles and cultures. Do you want to be seen in such positive terms whenever people come across your picture? An intriguing line of psychological research suggests how to accomplish just that: When caught on film you need to pay attention to the direction in which you are facing. People who look toward the right are perceived as more powerful and agentic than those who point to the left. In other words, how a person is represented in space shapes perceivers’ automatic impressions, as if we imagine the depicted person as literally moving from left to right, along an imaginary path that takes them from the present to future accomplishments.

This principle of “spatial agency bias” includes how simple actions are interpreted. For example, a soccer goal is considered to be more elegant, and an act of aggression to be more forceful when the actor moves from left to right, compared to the mirrored sequence occurring in the opposite direction. Similarly, in advertising cars are usually shown as facing to the right, and when they are, participants in research studies judge them to be faster and therefore more desirable.

Spatial position can also be indicative of social status. Historical analyses of hundreds of paintings indicate that when two people appear in the same picture the more dominant, powerful person is usually facing to the right. For example, relative to men, women are more often displayed showing the left cheek, consistent with gender roles that consider them as less agentic. In other words, traditionally weak and submissive characters are assigned to their respective place by where they are situated in space. From the 15th century to the 20th century, however, this gender bias in paintings has become less pronounced, therefore paralleling increasingly modern views of women’s role in society.

Where does the spatial agency bias come from? Is there some innate reason for preferring objects and persons to the right, perhaps as a consequence of 90% of people being right-handed? Or is there a learning component involved? Cross-cultural studies indicate that there is variability indeed. For example, for Arab and Hebrew speakers the pattern is completely reversed: People and objects facing to the left are judged to be more dynamic and agentic. This suggests a provocative possibility, namely that the spatial agency bias develops as a function of writing direction: As we move across the page we progress from what has happened to what is not yet, from what is established to what could still be. Years of experience with printed matter determine the ways in which we expect actions to unfold. Thought therefore follows language, in a rather literal sense.

So, next time you take that selfie make sure it reflects you from the right perspective!