Will Holding a Gun Make You Think Others Are Too? New Research Says Yes.
Research from the University of Notre Dame that shows a person’s bias to see guns in the hands of others is increased when the subject is holding a gun. The research, which will be published in the soon-to-be released issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance showed that subjects holding a toy gun were more likely to perceive the image of a person they were looking at to be holding a gun as opposed to another type of object. The research was performed by Notre Dame Associate Professor of Psychology James Brockmole along with an unnamed colleague from Purdue University.
In five experiments, subjects were shown multiple images of people on a computer screen and determined whether the person was holding a gun or a neutral object such as a soda can or cell phone. Subjects did this while holding either a toy gun or a neutral object such as a foam ball.
The researchers varied the situation in each experiment — such as having the people in the images sometimes wear ski masks, changing the race of the person in the image or changing the reaction subjects were to have when they perceived the person in the image to hold a gun. Regardless of the situation the observers found themselves in, the study showed that responding with a gun biased observers to report “gun present” more than did responding with a ball. Thus, by virtue of affording the subject the opportunity to use a gun, he or she was more likely to classify objects in a scene as a gun and, as a result, to engage in threat-induced behavior, such as raising a firearm to shoot.
“Beliefs, expectations and emotions can all influence an observer’s ability to detect and to categorize objects as guns,” Brockmole says. “Now we know that a person’s ability to act in certain ways can bias their recognition of objects as well, and in dramatic ways. It seems that people have a hard time separating their thoughts about what they perceive and their thoughts about how they can or should act.”
There is no detail of the experiments performed in the press release, so we do not know the number of subjects involved, the length of the sessions, the number of slides in the deck of images, or potential data that might bias the research.
The researchers showed that the ability to act is a key factor in the effects by showing that simply letting observers see a nearby gun did not influence their behavior; holding and using the gun was important.
“One reason we supposed that wielding a firearm might influence object categorization stems from previous research in this area, which argues that people perceive the spatial properties of their surrounding environment in terms of their ability to perform an intended action,” Brockmole says.
For example, other research has shown that people with broader shoulders tend to perceive doorways to be narrower, and softball players with higher batting averages perceive the ball to be bigger. The blending of perception and action representations could explain, in part, why people holding a gun would tend to assume others are, too.
“In addition to the theoretical implications for event perception and object identification, these findings have practical implications for law enforcement and public safety,” Brockmole says.
If the research pans out, and the experiments are properly replicatable, I would like to see the potential biasing factors included into the work. Would proper gun training influence the outcome? What if the person was a victim of a previous gun crime? The problem I sometimes find in psychological studies is the subjective nature of perception. Sometimes past experience affects our present judgment and can bias the outcome. As a person with broad shoulders, I can attest.
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