Law of minority advantage?

Our little girl is showing a tendancy for using her left hand. Now, I know that it’s probably too early to tell for sure, but Kate’s a leftie and there is some evidence that it can be inherited. Even so, between 7 – 10% of the population is left-handed. So I was wondering what it would mean for her to grow up left-handed, and I remembered that fact about fencers.

Apparently left-handers have an advantage in many competitive sports. Close to half of the 16 top fencers worldwide are left-handed. However, there is also significantly greater than 10% left-handers in sports like tennis, boxing, squash, badminton, cricket, and baseball. Although various sports have specific advantages for left-handers (an obvious one in baseball is that left-handed batters are closer to first base), the general rule is that the the majority of the sporting population – the right-handers – have little chance to practice against them. So, the main source of their advantage is the fact that they are a minority.

Perhaps this is generalisable beyond left-handers? Is there a “law” that minority groups have an advantage over the majority in competitive situations? While the minority group will naturally have regular opportunities to compete with members of the majority, the majority group will have fewer opportunities to compete against the minority. In situations where it is person-to-person competition, and familiarity and practice make a difference, you would expect a greater percentage of the minority group (than their percentage of the overall population) to be in the ranks of the most successful.

In many situations, being in a minority may be a disadvantage in itself, but perhaps this law indicates that sometimes that disadvantage is more than made up for by the law of minority advantage? For example, the women that I know in engineering/IT disciplines probably make up more of the senior ranks than their overall percentage in engineering might suggest. Or maybe my sample is biased in some way, but it’s interesting to ponder.

I wonder if it applies in the field of executive/personal assistants, where men tend to be in the minority. Do men tend to do better than the percentage of their participation in this field would suggest?

In theory, the smaller the minority group the greater the advantage gained. Left-handers are about 1 in 10 people, which is clearly small enough for the effect to be noticed. I wonder if there are rarer traits (that don’t come with specific disadvantages) that are also more present amongst the successful.

More digging around would be needed to see whether this principle could be extended more broadly, so I might come back to this later when I’ve got more data. Although, given the amount of free time I’ve had recently, Harriet might be grown up by that point.

6 thoughts on “Law of minority advantage?”

  1. Hey Andrew,
    What a great website. Even better that the most recent post is on one of my favourite topics, handedness. A couple more things about lefties for your useless trivia file – there has been research to suggest that they have faster reaction times due to better connections b/w left & right sides of the brain, which would mean it’s not just the element of surprise for lefthanded sportspeople. In Ye Olde times, I think lefties would’ve needed this as they were at a disadvantage in battle. Holding a shield in the right hand leaves the heart not as well protected from sword injuries (not that Harriet will have to worry about that!)
    One could argue though that left handed researchers didn’t like the idea that lefties didn’t have a physiological advantage & so went looking for one.
    I once heard a left handed tennis player (possibly Martina Navratilova) say that they didn’t like playing against left handers as they encountered each other in matches quite rarely & so weren’t used to playing each other. Last thing – I’m a believer in the inheritance theory: lots of mollydookers on both sides of my family, so I was bound to be one too!

  2. We’re starting to think that A is right-handed but it’s hard to know if that’s just because we make that assumption, both being that way ourselves.

    My sister was right-handed until she injured that hand badly at around two years of age – then she was an ambidextrous child for a while. Now she’s mainly right-handed but she eats like a left-handed person. I’m sure there are advantages to her particular circumstance, being that her brain probably got a few extra nudges during development.

    Your theory might apply in a way to male nurses and primary school teachers (both groups over-represented in senior roles), although how you would adjust for gender bias existing in the community at large I have no idea.

    There is of course a flip-side to your theory which is particularly pertinent for disabled people. Because they majority has no need to ‘compete’ with people with disabilities, or to face their challenges, it’s far too easy to be oblivious to what they might face. Sure, this might result in them being much better at negotiating an ableist world than we would be at negotiating one built for those without the ability to walk, for example, but that’s not really fair is it? Is it really an advantage to have to work harder at everything than everyone else? I guess the same applies to, say, female Senators who happen to have young children in an occupation traditionally dominated by men and a few much older women.

    So many digressions! Sorry…

  3. Firstly, I think that whole 1 in 10 thing is bunk. I am a lefty, my wife (and a good part of her family) are lefties, even the best man at our wedding was a lefty (Sinister? of course!)

    Now of course, A and I are watching little C with great trepidation. What if he is right handed? We have no frame of reference for how to teach him to be….normal.

  4. With no bias whatsoever, I suggest an alternative hypothesis:
    The reason there’s an unusually high number of top level left handed sportspeople is nothing to do with “minority advantage”, just merely that left handed people are better at everything!!

  5. @Mrs T, thanks for dropping by. Yeah, it should be about as common for a left-hander to play another left-hander as it is for a a right-hander to play a left-hander. No wonder they don’t like it. Although, at the elite level, the number of left-handers won’t be quite as uncommon, of course.

    @e, exactly – gender is a tricky one, as other factors may outweigh the advantage of being in a minority. Similarly with disabilities.

    I don’t know if the number of males & females entering some of these professions is similar enough, e.g. nursing, such that being in a minority doesn’t make you particularly rare.

    I wondered about the field of politics too. I had assumed that there would be plenty of women in politics, but apparently not. Although, I came across this article that suggested that women in politics *don’t* have a higher loss rate than men when they do participate.

    @Graham, it does seem that greater than 1 in 10 of my friends is left-handed, but I put that down to social dexterity. :P

    @T.A., clearly better at everything except modesty. :)

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