The following is an observation I made in an informal sample group of about 10 people. I am looking into understanding the behavior I observed. Here is the setting:

On a computer keyboard there are the 4 arrow directions: up/forward, down/backward, left and right. Only the up/forward and down/backward keys are functional. On the screen is a first-person view that can rotate left (counterclockwise) and right (clockwise). The up/forward and down/backward keys are to be bounded to those rotations, so that pressing one would rotate the view in the bound direction.

I've noticed that most people bind the up/forward key to the right rotation and the down/backward key to the left rotation. I thought that this has to do with handedness, but it seems not to be the case. The exact numbers don't matter because there is not enough here for statistical significance. It could be that there is an association of clockwise rotation with (time) moving forwards, and same for counterclockwise.

Is there any reasoning for this, or studies on this?

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    $\begingroup$ Is forward associated with right and backwards with left? No, forward is associated with optimism, whichever handed-ness or language is utilized. Backward is associated with pessimism, whichever handed-ness or language is utilized. In your 'test', (Before you administered the 'test', what was the intended goal?) neither handed-ness nor language are especially important to the participants of the 'test', they would be more inclined to address the optimism or pessimism which is a sub-text of the experience. $\endgroup$ Jul 24 '16 at 19:43
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    $\begingroup$ I like the question and have always found the expression "turn it to the right" (to mean clockwise) confusing. When you turn a nob clockwise, the top of the nob moves to the right, the bottom moves to the left, the right moves down, etc. There seems to be an unspoken assumption that "turn to the right" is with respect to the top of whatever you're turning. $\endgroup$ Jul 25 '16 at 20:11
  • $\begingroup$ @RandallStewart Indeed interesting. When talking about a nob there is a symmetry for its up/down parts, but if you think of clock dials they run across only the radius (and not the diameter). I think that because of this symmetry breaking we associate an absolute direction: when the dial is at its initial position (12:00), it moves right when turning clockwise. $\endgroup$ Jul 25 '16 at 23:11
  • $\begingroup$ @StephenKirby This was not a test, this was an observation of a given state. In a computer game I noticed that most people choose the keybinding I detailed above. The game itself does not favor one of the directions, so in of itself is irrelevant. $\endgroup$ Jul 25 '16 at 23:12
  • $\begingroup$ Forward left backwards right also relate to helicopters, which fly by means similar to a gyroscope. When the collective pitch is moved upwards, the cyclic must be moved forward and left pedal must be used to balance out the torque acting on the body of the helicopter, and when the collective is moved down you have to move the cyclic back and also apply right pedal to counter the torque. I know this is a psychology forum but it is still interesting to think about how these two things relate to each other $\endgroup$
    – JBG
    Mar 30 '20 at 4:56

It may have to do with language.

The idea that language influences thought is called Linguistic Relativity:

The more accepted weak version claims that linguistic categories and usage only influence thoughts and decisions.

Lera Boroditsky summarizes research on the influence language has on direction and time:

English speakers tend to talk about time using horizontal spatial metaphors (e.g., "The best is ahead of us," "The worst is behind us"), whereas Mandarin speakers have a vertical metaphor for time (e.g., the next month is the "down month" and the last month is the "up month"). ... Imagine this simple experiment. I stand next to you, point to a spot in space directly in front of you, and tell you, "This spot, here, is today. Where would you put yesterday? And where would you put tomorrow?" When English speakers are asked to do this, they nearly always point horizontally. But Mandarin speakers often point vertically, about seven or eight times more often than do English speakers.

And in more detail in a Scientific American article:

... my colleague Alice Gaby of the University of California, Berkeley, and I gave Kuuk Thaayorre speakers sets of pictures that showed temporal progressions—a man aging, a crocodile growing, a banana being eaten. We then asked them to arrange the shuffled photographs on the ground to indicate the correct temporal order. We tested each person twice, each time facing in a different cardinal direction. English speakers given this task will arrange the cards so that time proceeds from left to right. Hebrew speakers will tend to lay out the cards from right to left. This shows that writing direction in a language influences how we organize time. The Kuuk Thaayorre, however, did not routinely arrange the cards from left to right or right to left. They arranged them from east to west. ... in Aymara, a language spoken in the Andes, the past is said to be in front and the future behind. And the Aymara speakers’ body language matches their way of talking: in 2006 Raphael Núñez of U.C.S.D. and Eve Sweetser of U.C. Berkeley found that Aymara gesture in front of them when talking about the past and behind them when discussing the future.

This suggests that if you reversed the exercise, binding the left/right keys to movement forward or back, then you might get different results from Hebrew speakers than English ones. And if you presented this exercise to speakers of Kuuk Thaayorre, then the results might depend on which way the keyboard is oriented - ie, you would get different results depending on whether the keyboard faces East or West!

  • $\begingroup$ I was the only right-to-left language native speaker in the group and I also bound the keys the same way. It seems that without a controlled experiment (and not just an observation of a given state) there is little way to know the reason considering all these possibilities. $\endgroup$ Jul 25 '16 at 23:14
  • $\begingroup$ Well, I wouldn't expect Hebrew speakers (for example) to have different results for clockwise/counter clockwise, because clocks and time metaphors are the same in both languages. Perhaps native Mandarin speakers or (if you can find them) Aymara speakers might have different results since their time metaphors differ? Hard to tell. $\endgroup$
    – Arnon Weinberg
    Jul 26 '16 at 0:43

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