Holding a gun makes you think others are too

Wielding a gun increases a person’s bias to see guns in the hands of others, new research from the University of Notre Dame shows.

Notre Dame Associate Professor of Psychology James Brockmole, who specializes in human cognition and how the visual world guides behavior, together with a colleague from Purdue University, conducted the study, which will appear in an upcoming issue of Journal of Experimental Psychology: Perception and Performance.

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 the 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,” Dr. 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.”

The researchers showed that the ability to act is a key factor in their effects by showing that simply showing observers 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.


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5 thoughts on “Holding a gun makes you think others are too”

  1. I can’t find a copy of the report online, but the article does that there were different actions that the subjects were supposed to have when they spotted the gun, so it could be that one of the reactions the subjects were instructed to have was “raise the firearm to shoot.” But this isn’t clear from the article at hand.

    “to what extent is it related to the newness of the experience of holding a gun?”

    According to Scientific American’s coverage of this study, 1/4 of all police shooting involve an unarmed suspect. It doesn’t say what percentage of these occured when police thought the suspect had a gun but didn’t. But there are enough incidents where police fired on suspects holding some other object (a comb, a wallet, a phone, etc.) that it makes me doubt that being unfamiliar with holding a gun is what causes this particular psychological phenomena. It could be that police don’t receive enough training, but certainly they receive more than the “couple hours” prescribed by Curt Doolittle below.

  2. I am a proponent of gun control and still have concerns about these conclusions. Who was the sample group? Average people have extremely poor notions (and capabilities) with a firearm in stressful situations. It’s well-known (or should be) that one must learn use of force theory and train to a significant degree to attain the correct mindset to employ a firearm in these situations. Otherwise it’s just plain irresponsible, and biases or poor responses like these get people hurt or killed.\

    It’s also not clear if “holding” the firearm corresponds directly to those with one nearby or on their person, which is the actual mode of comportment for U.S. states with CCL laws on the books. These people do not wander around “holding” anything. Again, I support gun control, and I am not a guy with a rifle rack in his F-150, but I see some areas of serious concern when it comes to the veracity of some conclusions here …

  3. “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.”

    Really? Did the study actually show that? Nothing in the described experiments does. And if so, what steps did the researcher take against biases, especially confirmation bias? If this effect exists, to what extent is it related to the newness of the experience of holding a gun? For that matter, did the experiment control for variations of preexisting gun attitudes in the subjects?

    This last one is critical. If I’m in a slightly elevated threat environment, I scrutinize my surroundings for threats more carefully. If I’m armed, I’m more relaxed, and thus less likely to aggressively search for threats.

    Perception of threat is well-documented to lead to pacification attempts in many situations.

  4. Hence why those of us who teach handgun skills do so as often as possible.

    An informed and skilled person never sees a gun with fear again.

    It takes about two hours of drills to make a novice into a someone who can use a gun safely. It’s not rocket science. It’s following a few simple rules and then just practicing them.

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