BACKGROUND: The subjective haptic vertical (SHV) task requires subjects to adjust the roll orientation of an object, mostly in the roll plane, in such a way that it is parallel to perceived direction of gravity. Previously we found a tendency for clockwise rod rotations to deviate counter-clockwise and vice versa, indicating hysteresis. However, the contributing factors remained unclear. To clarify this we characterized the SHV in terms of handedness, hand used, direction of hand rotation, type of grasping (wrap vs. precision grip) and gender, and compared findings with perceived straight-ahead (PSA). Healthy subjects repetitively performed adjustments along SHV (n = 21) and PSA (n = 10) in complete darkness. RESULTS: For both SHV and PSA significant effects of the hand used and the direction of rod/plate rotation were found. The latter effect was similar for SHV and PSA, leading to significantly larger counter-clockwise shifts (relative to true earth-vertical and objective straight-ahead) for clockwise rotations compared to counter-clockwise rotations irrespective of the handedness and the type of grip. The effect of hand used, however, was opposite in the two tasks: while the SHV showed a counter-clockwise bias when the right hand was used and no bias for the left hand, in the PSA a counter-clockwise bias was obtained for the left hand without a bias for the right hand. No effects of grip and handedness (studied for SHV only) on accuracy were observed, however, SHV precision was significantly (p < 0.005) better in right-handed subjects compared to left-handed subjects and in male subjects. CONCLUSIONS: Unimanual haptic tasks require control for the hand used and the type of grip as these factors significantly affect task performance. Furthermore, aligning objects with the SHV and PSA resulted in systematic direction-dependent deviations that could not be attributed to handedness, the hand used, or the type of grip. These deviations are consistent with hysteresis and are likely not related to gravitational pull, as they were observed in both planes tested, i.e. parallel and perpendicular to gravity. Short-term adaptation that shifts attention towards previous adjustment positions may provide an explanation for such biases of spatial orientation in both the horizontal and frontal plane.