Spatial agency bias and word order flexibility: A comparison of 14 European languages

Caterina Suitner, Anne Maass, Eduardo Navarrete, Magdalena Formanowicz, Boyka Bratanova, Carmen Cervone, Juho Eemeli Hakoköngäs, Toon Kuppens, Eleni Lipourli, Tamara Rakić, Andrea Scatolon, Catia P. Teixeira, Zhenlan Wang, Maria Pedro Sobral, Antonin Carrier

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The spatial agency bias predicts that people whose native language is rightward written will predominantly envisage action along the same direction. Two mechanisms contribute jointly to this asymmetry: (a) an embodied process related to writing/reading; (b) a linguistic regularity according to which sentence subjects (typically the agent) tend to precede objects (typically the recipient). Here we test a novel hypothesis in relation to the second mechanism, namely, that this asymmetry will be most pronounced in languages with rigid word order. A preregistered study on 14 European languages (n = 420) varying in word order flexibility confirmed a rightward bias in drawings of interactions between two people (agent and recipient). This bias was weaker in more flexible languages, confirming that embodied and linguistic features of language interact in producing it.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)657-671
Number of pages15
JournalApplied Psycholinguistics
Issue number3
StatePublished - May 2021


  • cross-linguistic
  • spatial agency bias
  • word order

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language
  • General Psychology


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