Why Do Most People Favor Their Stove’s Front Right Burner?

The psychology of natural mapping and memory.

Posted Jul 21, 2020

 Dane Deaner/Unsplash
Source: Dane Deaner/Unsplash

What’s your favorite burner on your stove?

You know you have one, even if you don’t want to admit it. For most people, it’s the front right burner. But why?

Maybe you think you already know. Surely, it’s because more people are right-handed. Or because the front burners are easier to access. Or, it's about safety and workflow. The more powerful burners are in the front, so people don’t have to reach over open flames. The weaker burners are in the back so you can leave food to simmer while your primary focus is on your attention-commanding, front-burner dishes.

There’s certainly truth to all these reasons, but the question is more complicated than it initially seems. According to researchers, “The four-burner stove problem is an outstanding issue in ergonomic design,” and it continues to attract a lot of academic attention.

When you get down to it, there are deep psychological reasons that many of us favor the front right side.

Natural Mapping and Memory

“Natural mappings” occur when the relationship between an object and its controls are clear. For example, when you press the button on the side of your car seat forward to move the seat forward, that's a natural mapping. A “naturally mapped” stove would be arranged so there was no question which knob accompanies which burner.

 Carolyn Purnell
A naturally mapped stove where it is clear which knob controls which burner.
Source: Carolyn Purnell

Natural mappings reduce the need for information in the memory and facilitate easier, more intuitive interactions.

Unfortunately, most stoves are not naturally mapped. Typically, controls are arranged in a line, even though the burners are arranged in a rectangle. With this arrangement, you have to exert mental effort in order to learn which control goes with which burner. It's not intuitive.

 Carolyn Purnell
A typical stove without natural mapping. The controls have no clear relationship to a particular burner.
Source: Carolyn Purnell

Mathematically, there are twenty-four possible arrangements for the controls. Unless the knobs are clearly labeled, people will exercise trial-and-error several times before they develop automatic memories for which knob controls which burner.

Apparently, this “problem of the stove top” has existed for more than seventy years, but stove designers keep arranging burners in a rectangular pattern. This baffles Donald A. Norman, who argues that stoves reveal a simple yet important design principle: “If a design depends upon labels, it may be faulty. Labels are important and often necessary, but the appropriate use of natural mappings can minimize the need for them.”

Even when a stove's knobs are clearly labeled, processing those labels requires more time. Of course, this comes down to a micro-second, but in terms of human psychology, sometimes that's enough time to justify cutting corners. Instead of memorizing the controls for all four burners, people may minimize their time and effort by relying on one or two regularly.

The front right is a clear favorite because of its power, ergonomic location, and easy access. But on a deeper level, it’s because humans don’t want to take the time every single time we cook to decide which burner will be most functionally appropriate. In essence, we're inclined to rely on the front right burner because we've adapted to poorly mapped stoves.

The Tradeoffs We Make

People can easily function without having comprehensive, conscious knowledge of what they’re doing. For example, you can instinctively reach into your pocket and pull out a one-dollar bill, even if you couldn’t sit down and draw a completely accurate version of that bill.

Norman suggests that's because humans frequently make tradeoffs between speed, quality of performance, and mental effort. It would take a lot of time and mental effort for you to perfectly memorize the layout of a dollar bill, but most people get by perfectly fine by quickly recognizing its distinguishing features.

With our stoves, we are likely making the same tradeoff. So many things command our attention—especially while we’re cooking—that we don’t dedicate the time and effort necessary to truly learn the stove's layout. Our needs are well served just by going with the fastest, easiest, and most familiar heating option. 

Of course, when people do take the time to learn precise information, it can help them save time in the long run. For example, if you knew your stove inside out, you wouldn’t have any more annoying realizations that you’ve been heating the wrong pot for five minutes.

For most people, though, those long-term benefits are minimal, and they’re far outweighed by our love of short-term expediency. So, the front right burner takes charge.

Designers Do the Precise Work for Us

There’s an astounding number of everyday objects in our lives. From light switches and telephones to zippers and stoves, we unthinkingly rely on thousands of devices to keep our lives running smoothly.

All those objects had to be designed, and in every case, psychology played an important part in their development. Designers have to consider how users will think, how their muscle memory operates, and how complicated the average person’s conceptual models can be.  

For the most part, people don’t need precise memory information. They’d rather rely on their habitual processes, but at some point down the line, someone had to develop precise information to ensure that people could develop these reliable, convenient habits.

Many people have dedicated their lives to considering the ergonomics, safety, and workflow of the stove, so the rest of us don’t have to. That's yet another crucial reason, and perhaps the most crucial reason, we're able to rely on the front right burner.

References

Hoffmann, Errol R. and Alan H.S. Chan. “Alternative Approaches to the Design of Stoves.” In Ergonomics 54: 9, 777-791. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00140139.2011.597879

Norman, Donald A. The Psychology of Everyday Things. New York: Basic Books, 1988.

Reilly, Lucas. “You Probably Have a Favorite Burner, But You Might Be Using It Wrong.” Mental Floss. December 21, 2018. https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/568412/your-favorite-burner-has-specific-purpose