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Are You Impacted by Directional Biases? (The answer is yes!)

What if I told you, that starting from the movies you watched as a child through adulthood, filmmakers used biases to influence your perceptions? We are all biased to conceptualize events and people in our lives. In individuals whose primary languages read left to right, that becomes a direction we are comfortable with. It is ingrained in us from an early age. If we were asked to read from right to left, we would immediately feel uncomfortable. Research shows that readers of left-to-right written languages tend to conceptualize events as moving through space in the same direction. That is, we are comfortable with reading left to right, so we are comfortable with things moving and facing in that direction such as a car passing by, a boat floating down stream, or meeting a new person who approached from the left and faces towards the right.

In previous studies, readers of left-to-right languages are more likely to rate soccer goals scored from left-to-right as more beautiful than goals scored in the opposite direction. This phenomenon demonstrates that these biases not only exist in real time, but have been studied and proven to be utilized by society outside of reading and writing. A previous study, conducted by Kaylee Mahon and myself, analyzed this phenomenon being exploited by filmmakers to depict protagonists entering from screen left—moving right, and vice-versa for “bad guys”. That is, filmmakers influence our discomfort with leftward motion in the hope that it will transfer onto the bad guy. This study found that in scenes when the character is first introduced and when they first interact with their opposing characters, there is a significant interaction between the type of character and the direction they are facing or moving in the scenes.

Our study analyzed this phenomenon as potentially introduced as early in our lives as in early childhood, such as in Disney movies. This shows that this phenomenon is utilized in influencing and creating these biases, intentionally, starting when we are just children and staying with us through adulthood. Go back and watch Frozen. When Anna first meets Hans, he is facing towards the left in his interaction with Anna, implying discomfort towards him from the onset. Try farther back and see it in Apocalypse Now or Snow White. This bias has been utilized since the first generation of Disney movies and likely even prior to that.

One filmmaker, Francis Ford Coppola actually admitted to utilizing this technique in his movie, Apocalypse Now. In watching this movie, we see the boat and crew travelling farther and farther into the jungle. Coppola’s goal was to make the audience feel more and more uncomfortable as the movie progressed and he did so by making the boat travel in the scenes from the right to the left of the screen and facing towards the left.

So what does this mean? Well it shows that those of us with left-to-right written languages hold a core bias towards the direction things are traveling or facing in correlation to how we feel about them. But it isn’t just in movies, it is in our everyday life interactions. So the next time you meet someone or introduce yourself, pay attention to the direction they are perceiving you from and vice versa. It just may influence how you perceive each other.

By: Elana McGraw

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