Right Versus Left Brain: What Does the Spinning Dancer Teach Us?

Last week I linked to an intriguing visual of a spinning dancer. It is intriguing because some people see her spinning clockwise, whereas others see her spinning counter-clockwise. Moreover, some people are able to make the direction of her spin switch. The article asserts that the direction she spins is an indicator of whether your thinking is dominated by the right side of your brain (clockwise) or the left side of your brain (counter-clockwise).

According to funderstanding.com, left-brain people are supposed to be logical, sequential, rational, analytical, objective, and look at parts. These folks should see her spinning counter-clockwise. Right-brain people, meanwhile, are supposed to be random, intuitive, holistic, synthesizing, subjective, and look at wholes. She should spin clockwise in this case.

For me, the spinning is decidedly clockwise, which presumably makes me right-brained. I guess my college roommates, who nicknamed me “The Rational Man,” would be surprised and disappointed by the spinning dancer’s verdict. My wife Jeannette, watching the dancer next to me, saw her spin counter-clockwise. (As a result, her new nickname is “The Rational Woman,” though I don’t think it will stick.)

My initial sample of two people (my wife and myself) did not seem to fit with these predictions. So, in the interest of collecting more data, I asked blog readers to list their college majors along with the dancer’s spinning direction. We then tallied the data for the first 219 respondents who provided usable data. We divided people into the following broad categories based on their college majors: economics, hard sciences, engineering/math/computer science, non-economics social scientists, and the humanities.

The theory, I think, would predict that economists, engineers, and scientists would likely be dominated by left-brain thinkers who see her spinning counter-clockwise, whereas humanists and non-economics social scientists would have more right-brain thinkers. Here’s how the numbers actually break down as to who initially sees her spinning counter-clockwise among Freakonomics blog readers. The higher this number, the more rational you are supposed to be (with the number of observations in parentheses):

Engineers/mathematicians/computer programmers: 21.8% (N=55)
Economists: 26.7% (N=60)
Scientists: 31.0% (N=29)
Social Scientists: 36.2% (N=47)
Humanities: 42.9% (N=28)

Admittedly, these are not large sample sizes, but the results could hardly be more off from the theory’s apparent predictions. Ironically, it appears that the theory does have some power to order people as to how logical they might be — you just have to reverse your interpretation of which direction of spin corresponds to right-brained thinking. Perhaps the author of the article just got confused?

The initial article also misses on its other prediction — namely, that the dancer will spin counter-clockwise for most people. In fact, in our data only 30 percent of the people saw her spinning counter-clockwise when they first looked. Again, this is consistent with the original author mixing up clockwise and counter-clockwise.

As it turns out, I should have asked our commenters to list their genders as well. In most cases, we could make an informed guess of gender based on names. Women turned out to be 36 percent counter-clockwise, versus 30 percent for men (and 23 percent for people whose gender we couldn’t tell from their comment). From a cursory search of the Internet, it seems like this result also contradicts what we would expect.

I often joke about how the information provided by someone who is incredibly terrible at predicting the future (i.e., they always get things wrong) is just as valuable as what you get from someone who is good at predicting the future. I used this strategy with some success by betting the opposite of my father whenever he’d bet a large sum of money on a football team that was sure to cover the spread.

It looks like the spinning dancer is just terrible enough as a predictor to be of value.

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  1. Steve P. says:

    It’s not entirely scientific… One can make the dancer switch by focusing on the bottom stabilizing foot.

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  2. Steve P. says:

    It’s not entirely scientific… One can make the dancer switch by focusing on the bottom stabilizing foot.

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
  3. Evan says:

    Any guesses on what the ability to change your perception of the spin indicates? Perhaps an enlarged corpus callosum?

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  4. Evan says:

    Any guesses on what the ability to change your perception of the spin indicates? Perhaps an enlarged corpus callosum?

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  5. discordian says:

    Prof Levitt – I wonder if sometime, maybe in a future blog, you could let us in on what computer software you use to do your various statistical analysis? Most statisticians I work with use Statistica and/or JMP and this is in the manufacturing world.

    AND HOW DARE YOU GROUP US ENGINEERS WITH COMPUTER SCIENTISTS!!!! :D

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  6. discordian says:

    Prof Levitt – I wonder if sometime, maybe in a future blog, you could let us in on what computer software you use to do your various statistical analysis? Most statisticians I work with use Statistica and/or JMP and this is in the manufacturing world.

    AND HOW DARE YOU GROUP US ENGINEERS WITH COMPUTER SCIENTISTS!!!! :D

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1
  7. Lloyd Davis says:

    hmmmm… some interesting biases showing here – non-economics Social Scientists are less rational than economists (mmm…) and that readers of the freakonomics blog who chose to submit their thoughts on this pile of tosh form a representative sample.

    Just read your moderation policy below and realise that “pile of tosh” might be considered abusive… feel free to expunge it :)

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  8. Lloyd Davis says:

    hmmmm… some interesting biases showing here – non-economics Social Scientists are less rational than economists (mmm…) and that readers of the freakonomics blog who chose to submit their thoughts on this pile of tosh form a representative sample.

    Just read your moderation policy below and realise that “pile of tosh” might be considered abusive… feel free to expunge it :)

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0