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    Turning like a clock


    A movement in a clockwise direction feels progressive, as though facing the future. The opposite direction, by contrast, represents a backward focus. This sounds plausible. What sounds surprising, however, is a finding by Würzburg psychologists.

    They have discovered the following: the direction of movement can influence people’s decisions and even their personality – even if it is only a matter of choosing candies with different flavors.

    Clockwise means progress! Time marches on when the second hand moves forward; the engine starts when we turn the key to the right; the music gets louder when we twist the volume knob up. Clockwise is progressive, facing the future, open to new things. On the other hand, “counter-clockwise” represents a degree of regression, a backward step, a focus on the past, on the old and familiar.

    “People closely associate the progression of time with spatial concepts, one of these being rotational direction, which we experience daily on clocks and other instruments,” says Sascha Topolinski, a psychologist at the University of Würzburg. So, if people associate a rotation in a clockwise or counter-clockwise direction with a temporal concept, i.e. future and new or past and familiar, how does this influence their attitudes and decisions?

    This question has been explored by Sascha Topolinski and Peggy Sparenberg from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig using a series of experiments. The journal Social Psychological and Personality Science reports on this work in its latest issue.

    Turning to the right arouses a desire for the new

    The answer is supplied by a simple experiment: the participants were allowed to help themselves to candies with different flavors from a series of cups, supposedly as a reward for taking part in a series of experiments, which in truth they had only completed as a diversion. These cups were presented on a revolving tray of the kind sometimes found in restaurant buffets. To be able to read the respective flavor, the participants had to turn the tray, which they could only do in one direction, be this clockwise or counter-clockwise.

    A total of 16 flavors were represented on the tray. Eight of these were rather common, such as apple, cherry, and lemon. The other eight candies had rather unusual flavors, such as popcorn, marshmallow, and melon. The participants were told to take five. The following happened: “Those who turned the tray clockwise were more likely to choose the unusual new varieties,” reveals Topolinski.

    Turning personality

    A rotation in a clockwise or counter-clockwise direction even affects our personality in terms of our preferences and values, as the psychologists revealed in a further experiment. Here, 60 volunteers were asked to describe their personal attitudes and preferences while turning a crank handle. Are they rather cosmopolitan, tolerant, and creative? Or do they prefer to adhere to traditional and conservative values? The result was unequivocal: “It transpired that rotating a crank clockwise makes people more cosmopolitan and creative,” says Topolinski.

    The same applies even if people are not actually doing the turning themselves and instead are merely shown this movement in the form, say, of rotating squares, as the psychologists were able to prove in another experiment.

    Psychological consequences

    What may at first look like a bit of a gimmick has an important basis to it: psychologists are researching how cultural and technical conventions can unconsciously affect how we experience and perceive things.

    For example, the rotational direction of a movement has no inherent significance for the body. It is only thanks to our everyday exposure to clocks, switches, and levers that it acquires the meaning of past and future. “Our experience with technology is the cause: such effects are likely to be even stronger with disc jockeys, while cultures that are not so high-tech are probably affected very little by the direction of rotation,” surmises Topolinski.

    Practical consequences

    What is more, these findings could have practical implications. “Revolving doors generally turn in a counter-clockwise direction, including in most department stores. This makes customers conservative. Simply changing the direction might arouse their curiosity for new products,” speculates Topolinski.

    Unlike in casinos: “Here, wheels of fortune and roulette wheels always turn clockwise. This makes players more receptive and perhaps encourages them to take greater risks,” says the psychologist. Topolinski can cite even more similar examples: “Take a look at the “loading symbol” on the Internet when a new page is loading. This almost always moves in a clockwise direction,” he says. It is good that is does, as the observers will then be more receptive to the new information.

    Further questions await answers

    The fact that even visual stimuli trigger this effect, in other words even the mere observation of rotating objects, presents psychologists with further puzzles: What happens when people observe a disc rotating clockwise while, at the same time, turning a crank handle in the opposite direction?

    What happens when they watch a hurdy gurdy player? The player turns the handle clockwise, of course, but his audience facing him perceives the movement in the opposite direction. Do they still empathize with the musician or does the visual impression override everything else?

    And how do people who are exposed a lot to rotation because of their job differ from people who are not?

    Many questions which, according to the psychologists, mean that further experiments are urgently needed. In any case, Topolinski is certain that “future applied research will look more closely at the consequences of rotational direction in everyday life.”

    Turning the Hands of Time: Clockwise Movements Increase Preference for Novelty, Sascha Topolinski, Peggy Sparenberg. Social Psychological and Personality Science, Published online before print August 29, 2011, doi: 10.1177/1948550611419266


    Dr. Sascha Topolinski, T: +49 (0)931 312285, e-mail: sascha.topolinski@psychologie.uni-wuerzburg.de

    By Gunnar Bartsch