Why Do People Usually Walk In the Same Direction?

When taking a walk around the block, is there something driving you to turn right or left? Is there something more to this than habit? Erik Witsoe/EyeEm/Getty Images

Want to beat the lines during your next theme park outing? When you enter the theme park, turn left.

It's incredibly simple advice, but experts say you'll avoid the longest lines because most people tend to instinctively veer to the right upon entering. If you go left, you'll be going against the grain, and against the intent of the amusement park designers. But in general, which direction do most people walk in, clockwise (starting right) or counterclockwise (starting left)?


It's an intriguing question, especially since it's common practice for runners to move counterclockwise on athletic tracks. The same counterclockwise action goes for horse and car races, and for baseball players running the bases. There is even evidence that the chariot races at ancient Rome's Circus Maximus ran counterclockwise, too.

To the Left, To the Left

To test the idea that a person's right- or left-handedness influences their directional preferences, researchers studied the use of dominant hands. What they found, according to the results published by the Association for Psychological Science, is that lefties prefer the left side and righties like the right.

This may not sound astounding, but the way these tendencies manifest offers clues into our clockwise/counterclockwise behaviors. Scientists studied the reaction of stroke patients who had lost the use of their dominant hand. Over time, the patients reversed their natural bias and associated the "good" side of objects (spacially speaking) with the side they were forced to use.


Scientists studied other groups who were artificially forced to use their non-dominant hand and found similar results. Right-handed participants who used their left hand to sort dominoes almost immediately showed a "leftie" bias when identifying the "good" side of an object.

So in sports, where competitors enter the field of play from the outside of a traced circle, a right-directional choice would lead to a counter-clockwise motion. But when entering the field of action from within the circle — walking out of your apartment to take the dog for a walk, and encountering intersections — right directional choices would tend towards tracing a clockwise path.


Hemispherically Clockwise

A number of theories address why these directional habits began, but its continuation has everything to do with predictability. People move in predictable patterns, and for the most part, this is a good thing. Take driving a car, for example. If automobile drivers didn't move in a way that other drivers expected, chaos would erupt and many situations, including four-way stops, would become accident zones.

There's also some speculation that the side of the road on which people customarily drive could impact the direction they opt to walk as pedestrians. According to this theory, people in the U.S. drive on the right side of the road, so they are more likely to turn right when taking a walk around the block, for instance, tracing a clockwise route.


left or right sign in street
Scientists have investigated how and why people make the choice to veer left or right when presented with options.
sesameellis/RooM RM/Getty Images

But studies of retail shoppers in Great Britain, Australia and Japan, where people drive on the left side of the road, show they tend to turn left — counterclockwise — when navigating store aisles.

These geographical differences haven't been observed in animal movement patterns, where herds tend to migrate the same direction generation after generation.


It's Natural to Follow the Herd

Some researchers also point to the rotational patterns in nature, such as the clockwise migration patterns of elephant herds, penguins and most songbird species. Often, say researchers, this migration is guided by wind and weather patterns that help herds conserve energy, or by solar pathways that shape their movements. And it's not so different for humans.

Take the analog clock, for instance, which runs in a clockwise pattern. Why is the numeral 1 located to the right of noon (or midnight), instead of to the left? This clockwise directionality all has to do with the ancient sundial. Sundials tell time by casting a shadow that moves in a clockwise fashion. The modern version of timekeepers are patterned after sundials created in the northern hemisphere, which chart shadows in a clockwise direction. If the southern hemisphere sundials had been used as inspiration, clocks might move counterclockwise (left) instead.


Like Salmon Swimming Upstream

"We can use the understanding that most people walk counterclockwise to place interesting objects in such a way that invites us into spaces," says Rachel Preston Prinz, a founding director the global architectural design research and development cooperative Archinia.

Harnessing people's natural movements can "cause excitement and engagement before even stepping into a space," she says. "Or alternately, we can use the disruption of making someone turn left to enter a space to cause mild discomfort in order to prepare them for an unusual experience or stimulate them into paying more attention."


Moving the direction that people aren't naturally oriented to move can cause them to interact with their environment in a new way, as may be the case in amusement parks — which aim to create an air of novelty and engagement.

But more than one retailer has learned that application of theory doesn't always work out so well. A store in the Philadelphia area tried to funnel shoppers to the left upon entering the establishment, but they fought the clockwise movement. Instead of turning left, shoppers careened around pallets and displays that blocked their path to the right, attempting to go counterclockwise with the same determination of salmon swimming upstream. As it turns out, people have our own variation on migratory patterns, too.