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The Wages of Sinistrality: Handedness, Brain Structure and Human Capital Accumulation

  • Goodman, Joshua

    (Harvard University)

Left- and right-handed individuals have different brain structures, particularly in relation to language processing. Using five data sets from the US and UK, I show that poor infant health increases the likelihood of a child being left-handed. I argue that handedness can thus be used to explore the long-run impacts of differential brain structure generated in part by poor infant health. Even conditional on infant health and family background, lefties exhibit economically and statistically significant human capital deficits relative to righties. Compared to righties, lefties score a tenth of a standard deviation lower on measures of cognitive skill and, contrary to popular wisdom, are not over-represented at the high end of the distribution. Lefties have more emotional and behavioral problems, have more learning disabilities such as dyslexia, complete less schooling, and work in less cognitively intensive occupations. Differences between left- and right-handed siblings are similar in magnitude. Most strikingly, lefties have six percent lower annual earnings than righties, a gap that can largely be explained by these differences in cognitive skill, disabilities, schooling and occupational choice. Lefties work in more manually intensive occupations than do righties, further suggesting that lefties' primary labor market disadvantage is cognitive rather than physical. Those likely be left-handed due to genetics show smaller or no deficits relative to righties, suggesting the importance of environmental shocks as the source of disadvantage. Handedness provides parents and schools a costlessly observable characteristic with which to identify young children whose cognitive and behavioral development may warrant additional attention.

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Paper provided by Harvard University, John F. Kennedy School of Government in its series Working Paper Series with number rwp12-002.

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Date of creation: Jan 2012
Date of revision:
Handle: RePEc:ecl:harjfk:rwp12-002
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  1. Christopher S. Ruebeck & Joseph E. Harrington, Jr & Robert Moffitt, 1997. "Handedness and Earnings," Economics Working Paper Archive 533, The Johns Hopkins University,Department of Economics, revised Jun 2004.
  2. Heckman, James J, 1995. "Lessons from the Bell Curve," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 103(5), pages 1091-1120, October.
  3. Johnston, David W. & Shah, Manisha & Shields, Michael A., 2007. "Handedness, Time Use and Early Childhood Development," IZA Discussion Papers 2752, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
  4. Kevin Denny & Vincent O'Sullivan, 2004. "The economic consequences of being left-handed : some sinister results (version 2.0)," Working Papers 200422, School of Economics, University College Dublin.
  5. Janet Currie & Mark Stabile, 2009. "Appendix to "Mental Health in Childhood and Human Capital"," NBER Chapters, in: The Problems of Disadvantaged Youth: An Economic Perspective National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  6. Currie, Janet & Stabile, Mark, 2006. "Child mental health and human capital accumulation: The case of ADHD," Journal of Health Economics, Elsevier, vol. 25(6), pages 1094-1118, November.
  7. Douglas Almond & Janet Currie, 2011. "Killing Me Softly: The Fetal Origins Hypothesis," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 25(3), pages 153-72, Summer.
  8. Carmit Segal, 2006. "Motivation, test scores and economic success," Economics Working Papers 1124, Department of Economics and Business, Universitat Pompeu Fabra, revised Oct 2008.
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