Simply holding a gun increases the chances that you think other people are armed as well, new research has found.
James Brockmole, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Notre Dame, teamed with a colleague from Purdue University to conduct the study, which will appear in an upcoming issue of Journal of Experimental Psychology: Perception and Performance.
In a series of five experiments, subjects were shown images of people on a computer screen and asked to determine 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 situations 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 study showed that those participants who were holding a gun reported “gun present” more than the other participants.
By giving the participant 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, the researchers note.
“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.”
The researchers showed that the ability to act is a key factor. Simply showing participants a nearby gun did not influence their behavior — holding and using the gun was important.
Brockmole notes one reason wielding a gun might influence a participant’s idea that others are holding guns: Previous research shows people perceive the spatial properties of their surrounding environment in terms of their ability to perform an intended action. 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, he said.
“In addition to the theoretical implications for event perception and object identification, these findings have practical implications for law enforcement and public safety,” Brockmole said.
Source: University of Notre Dame