People look more powerful, athletes more elegant, and cars faster when they appear to be facing to the right.

This mind-blowing insight comes from Simone Schnall, director of the Cambridge Embodied Cognition and Emotion Lab, who described this trait, called spatial agency bias, for an feature on scientific concepts that more people should know.

Schnall wrote: “People who look toward the right are perceived as more powerful and agentic than those who point to the left …. The principle of ‘spatial agency bias’ includes how simple actions are interpreted. For example, a soccer goal is considered to be more elegant, an act of aggression to be more forceful, when the actor moves from left to right, compared to the mirrored sequence occurring in the opposite direction. Similarly, in advertising cars are usually shown as facing to the right, and, when they are, participants in research studies judge them to be faster and therefore more desirable.”

Note that the bias refers to how things appear from the perspective of the viewer. The subject of a photo, when facing the camera, would want to look to his or her left to take advantage of this bias.

Why does this happen? One clue is that the bias seems to be reversed among Arab and Hebrew speakers, who perceive objects facing to the left as more powerful.

"This suggests a provocative possibility," Schnall wrote, "namely that the spatial agency bias develops as a function of writing direction: As we move across the page, we progress from what has happened to what is not yet, from what is established to what could still be. Years of experience with printed matter determines the way in which we expect actions to unfold."

In other words, for English speakers among others, facing to the right might mean facing toward the future.

We previously highlight 11 other underappreciated scientific concepts from the list.