And now for something completely different… This is a repost with a difference – it’s an edited interview I did with London scientist Chris McManus way back in September 2007. This has a fond place in my heart, for it was the first proper freelance writing assigment that I did after winning the Telegraph’s Science Writer award. This is where all the cool freelancing began. It was originally published on Nature Network, but I note that their news archives have disappeared. As such, here it is again.
McManus, a Professor of Psychology and Medical Education at UCL, is an expert on asymmetry and left-handedness. He won the Aventis Prize for Science Books in 2002 with his first book – Right Hand, Left Hand. Now, he’s turned his attention to the rise and fall of left-handedness during British history.
About 11% of the British population is currently left-handed. But that wasn’t always the case. Among people born in 1900, the proportion of lefties was just 3%. McManus and Alex Hartigan from University College London worked this out with the help of old films made at the turn of the 19th century and recently restored.
What made you want to study historical rates of left-handedness?
People have always assumed that the rate of left-handedness has been constant throughout history but it’s never been properly explored. Recent data showed us that left-handedness was less common in people born at the beginning of the twentieth century than those born later, by a factor of four.
We wanted to find out what happened before that and why things changed. But of course, there’s very little data. People have talked about left-handers in the literature since the time of Aristotle but they never say how many there were.
How did you find out?
It was a stroke of luck. We came across these wonderful films by Mitchell and Kenyon, made between 1900 and 1906, where they filmed people coming in and out of factories. They’re wonderfully evocative films. You really get a sense of that late Victorian era.
We noticed that the people in the films waved whenever they saw the camera. My student, Alex Hartigan, went through this footage and recorded every time someone waved and which hand they used.
The effect that violent films and games have on our minds, and the implications for their place in society, has been a source of much heated debate. Now, a new study looks set to fan the flames even further. Several studies have found that violent media can desensitise people to real acts of violence, but Brad Bushman from the University of Michigan and Craig Anderson from Iowa State University have produced the first evidence that this can actually change a person’s behaviour, affecting their decisions to help others in need.
Using professional actors, they found that after 20 minutes of playing a violent video game, people who heard a loud fight that ended with an injury took longer to help the victim, and believed that the fight was less serious. Likewise, people who watched a violent film took longer to help an injured woman to pick up her crutches outside the cinema. In the duo’s own words, “Violent media make people numb to the pain and suffering of others.”
In the first study, Bushman and Anderson recruited 320 students under the pretence of studying their tastes in video games. The recruits played 20 minutes of either a violent video game (Carmageddon, Duke Nukem, Mortal Kombat or Future Cop) or a non-violent one (Glider Pro, 3D Pinball, Austin Powers or Tetra Madness). After playing, the recruits were left alone to fill in a questionnaire. They wrote their favourite type of video game (fighting, fantasy, skill, sports and so on) followed by over 200 questions on such games.
This massive list of questions was a red herring, designed to keep the volunteers busy. Three minutes into the time, Bushman and Anderson played a recording outside the room of two actors fighting about how one stole the other’s partner. The actors’ gender was matched to the recruit inside and the two quickly descended into a shouting match and came to blows.