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Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your (right) ear

June 25, 2009 |  3:24 pm

The answer to your question may depend on which ear you ask. We tend to offer our right ear to speakers and are more likely to say yes to a request addressed into it, reported Italian researchers in a study published in the journal Naturwissenschaften.

Although knowledge of right-ear dominance is nothing new, how the results were generated in this study was: The scientists talked to strangers in nightclubs.

Right-ear preference is one of the best-known asymmetries in humans, transcending gender, ethnicity, age and right- or left-handedness. It is thought to be due to the right ear’s speediness in transmitting information to our brain’s left hemisphere, which dominates in processing language.

Until now, however, most studies on the phenomenon were performed in laboratory-controlled settings, not more “natural” environments.  

To change this, researchers Daniele Marzoli and Luca Tommasi of the Gabriele d'Annunzio University in Italy gathered observational evidence from what they called an “ecological situation”: noisy Italian discotheques.

First, the researchers watched 286 clubbers while they were talking, and observed that 72% of all interactions happened on the listener’s right side.

Next, the researchers had a woman approach 80 men and 80 women, mumble a meaningless request and observe which ear the listener offered. (She then asked for a cigarette.) 

Overall, 58% of the subjects lent their right ear, with females showing a significant preference for doing so. In this situation, when the people who were approached chose the ear they offered, the woman was just about as likely to get a cigarette regardless of which ear she spoke into.

In the final leg of the experiment, the woman went up to a person and chose which ear she spoke into. When this was done, the likelihood of the woman being given the cigarette doubled with requests that were spoken into the right ear: 34 of 88 clubbers offered a cigarette to an asker addressing the right ear, and only 17 of 88 clubbers did the same when addressed on the left.

Why should this be? It is thought that activation of the left and right brain hemispheres correspond with positive and negative judgments, respectively. This asymmetry is linked to two motivational systems: “approach” in the left and “avoidance” in the right. 

The data, which suggest specialization of different sides of the brain for different emotions, are consistent with previous findings. For example, one study from 1991 found that subjects showed a better memory of arguments with which they agreed when the sentences were heard through the right ear, and better remembering of disagreements heard through their left ear.

However, the scientists caution, “Unequal distribution of sound sources in space, type of music played, [or] effect of alcohol intake” all may have had an effect on results.

-- Shara Yurkiewicz

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