People Prefer the Right Side of the Plane, Study Finds

Jan 9, 2018

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Flyers have an innate bias toward seats on the starboard, or right-hand, side of the plane when given a chance, a British study has found.

“It seems to be, curiously, a bit of a contrast between what people did in all these lab studies and how they act in the real world,” psychology lecturer Stephen Darling, of Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh, said in a phone interview Tuesday.

When Darling began the study, he expected that the results would show a slight bias toward the port, or left-hand, side of the plane, conforming to a psychological phenomenon known as pseudoneglect. That’s the puzzling tendency of human beings to favor the left when presented with tasks that require them to pay attention to something or to recreate something they’ve observed. For example, if asked to draw a line straight down the middle of the blank piece of paper, most people will draw the line somewhat to the left of center. When asked to recall details of a scene, they’re more likely to remember elements from the left side.

In Darling’s study, conducted at Edinburgh University, 32 right-handed Britons between the ages of 21 and 31 were asked to use computers to select seats on flights to fictional cities using airplane seating diagrams similar to the ones you use when booking on real-world airlines. In the study, however, the fictional plane was oriented nose down half the time, to eliminate the possibility that users simply favor one side of a computer screen. The assigned seat letters were also reconfigured to eliminate the possibility that people might be choosing seats because they bore letters closer to the beginning or end of the alphabet.

But regardless of which which way the plane diagram or seat letters were oriented, the subjects showed a slight but significant bias toward seats on the starboard side. (Previous, less rigorous, studies, had shown both leftward and rightward biases, depending on the particular study.)

Unsurprisingly, the subjects also preferred aisle or window seats to middle seats. They also favored the front of the plane over the back. (There was only one class on the study’s fictional plane.)

Darling’s right-sided results seem to line up with the paradox that, in the real world, people seem do the opposite of what they do in lab settings when it comes to pseudoneglect, like tending to choose seats on the right side in movie theaters.

“When people walk through a narrow doorway, they tend to bash their right shoulder against the doorframe,” Darling said. “They tend to kick footballs more to the right as well.”

It’s still up for debate why flyers seem to prefer the right side, though. It could be a quirk of the brain, or it could be related to the fact that boarding on commercial jets is almost universally on the port side.

“You get on the port side rather the starboard side, and that might have been going on in people’s minds,” Darling said.

The professor said he plans on continuing his studies on lateral bias in different settings, like on passenger trains. In any case, he said, the bias isn’t strong enough to overrule other, more conscious choices people make about how they fly.

“If somebody knows they’re going to fly south to north in the morning, and that the sun is going to be on the right side of the plane, that’ll trump any preferences these people have, and they’ll pick a seat on the left side to stay out of the sun,” he said.

Featured image courtesy of Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

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