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Maths explains left-handed boxer success
A new mathematical model can predict the proportion of left-handed people in sports such as boxing and golf.

Mathematician Mark Panaggio and PhD supervisor Dr Daniel Abrams report their findings today in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.

"Our model gives the first quantitative explanation for the distribution of handedness within many professional sports," says Panaggio.

Only about 10 per cent of humans are left-handed and previous work has suggested this "population-level handedness" can be explained by the competing pressures of competition and cooperation.

Panaggio and Abrams hypothesised that this idea could also explain the observation that the proportion of left-handed people seemed to differ in different types of sport.

For example, there seemed to be more left-handed boxers and fewer left-handed golfers.

They used this idea to develop the first model of its kind that could predict the handedness fractions in a given population.

"Our model predicts that in populations that are purely cooperative, everyone would have the same dominant hand, but in populations that are purely competitive there will be a mix," says Panaggio.

"When both competition and cooperation are present, intermediate distributions are possible."
Competition versus cooperation

Despite devastating wars, humanity at large has been on the whole quite cooperative. The need to share tools, for example, has made it more efficient for the vast majority to be right-handed, says Panaggio.

Similarly in sports like golf, being left-handed is a disadvantage because it's hard to find left-handed golf clubs.

By contrast, in populations where it is more common to be in combat, such as amongst professional boxers, there is an advantage to being left-handed.

"Right-handers are used to facing right-handers. When they face a left-hander, the left-hander has the element of the surprise," says Panaggio.

Panaggio and Abrams used their model to predict the proportion of left-handers in eight different elite sports and found their predictions to be accurate when they compared them against actual data.

"By accounting for how popular the sport is, and how cooperative or competitive the sport is, we can estimate how common left-handers should be," says Panaggio.

"The fact that our predictions seem to be reasonably accurate supports to the idea that balancing competition and cooperation can explain handedness."
Dearth of left-handed golfers

Of the sports the researchers looked at, American football and golf were the most cooperative with the lowest proportion of left-handers.

For example, in the top 100 list there are no left-handed females and only four male left-handed golfers, says Panaggio.

"That's lower than in the overall population," he says.

By contrast, about 30 per cent of baseball players were found to be left-handed - a sport in which an element of surprise is useful when pitching to the batter, says Panaggio.

"If you look at the very best hitters in baseball the number of left-handers goes up even higher to 60 per cent," he says.

Similarly, 25 per cent of top level boxers were found to be left-handed and cricket would also be expected to have a high level of left-handedness, says Panaggio.

"Sometimes left-handness is discouraged because it's considered more efficient for everyone to use the same hand," he says.

"Our work shows it's more efficient to have mostly right-handers but some lefthanders because our world consists of a balance of competition and cooperation."

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