Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.

UCare generously supports MinnPost’s Second Opinion coverage; learn why.

Is someone holding a gun more likely to think others are armed? New study says yes

When people have a gun in their hand, they’re more likely to believe an object held by someone else is also a gun.

When people have a gun in their hand, they’re more likely to believe an object held by someone else is also a gun.

They’re also more likely to raise the gun to shoot.

Those are the key findings from a new study that will be published later this spring in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance.

“The familiar saying goes that when you hold a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” write the two psychologists who authored the study, James Brockmole of the University of Notre Dame and Jessica Witt of Purdue University. “The apparent harmlessness of this expression fades when one considers what happens when a person holds a gun.”

In their paper, Brockmole and Witt cite the tragic 1999 case of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed black man who was shot 41 times by New York City police when they mistook the wallet he was trying to show them for a gun. But the study’s findings also seem relevant in the wake of a more recent tragedy, the Feb. 26 shooting in Sanford, Fla., of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black high school student who had been carrying only a cell phone, a bag of Skittles and an iced tea at the time of his death.

The man who shot him, George Zimmerman, a self-appointed neighborhood watch captain, had been patrolling Sanford’s suburban streets with a handgun.

With a gun in his hand, was Zimmerman more likely to assume — as this new study suggests — that Martin was also armed? And if everything is more likely to look like a gun when you’re carrying one, shouldn’t we be rethinking our permissive concealed weapons laws?

I called Brockmole on Thursday to talk with him about his study’s findings in lieu of this latest tragedy. Although he said he understood why his findings might be pertinent to an incident like the shooting in Sanford last month, he wasn’t willing to make that connection himself.

“We didn’t design these experiments to support any political leaning,” he said. “That’s the wrong way to do science.”

“Our job as scientists is to try and understand and predict behavior,” he added.

A series of five experiments

Brockmole, who specializes in human cognition and how the visual world guides behavior, said he and Witt chose guns for this latest study because they offer a dramatic example of how the presence of an object may not only alter the way we see and perceive information, but also our behavior.

The study was really a series of five experiments involving groups of 34 to 64 students. In the experiments, the students were shown a stream of images of people on a computer screen. They were asked to decide whether the people who appeared on the screen were holding a gun or a neutral object, such as a soda can, a cell phone, or a shoe. The students themselves were given either a Nintendo Wii Magnum gun or a foam ball to hold in their dominant hand. In some of the experiments, they were also instructed to raise the object in their hand and point it at the screen if they perceived that the person on the screen had a gun and, alternately, to lower their object and point it at the floor if they thought the person wasn’t carrying a gun.

The researchers varied the situations in the experiments. In one experiment, for example, the students were told to lower the gun when they thought a person in the image was armed. In another, the people in the images were wearing ski masks. The race of the people in the images was also altered.

A significant bias

All the experiments found that when the students were holding a gun rather than a neutral object they were significantly more biased toward assuming that the people in the images also had guns in their hands. And they were more likely to act on that bias by raising their own gun.

“A gun certainly changes what action choices you make,” said Brockmole.

But only, interestingly, if the gun is in someone’s hand. When the gun was simply nearby but not in the hands of the students, the students were not more likely to jump to the conclusion that the people in the images were armed.

This study also found that the race of the people in the images did not play a significant role in how the students’ responded, but that finding may have been because race was not central to the study’s investigation. “It’s clear [from other research] that race does matter,” said Brockmole.

He also pointed out that his study looked only at how a gun biases individuals toward perceiving a “gun-present” threat from another individual.

“The separate question is: Are you more likely to pull the trigger?” Brockmole said. “We don’t have the answer to that question.”

Practical implications

Although Brockmole did not want to project his findings into the Trayvon Martin case, he did want to emphasize that his study is an investigation into the way people behave, not a justification of that behavior.

“We’re not excusing behavior,” he said. “We’re explaining behavior.”

He and Witt do acknowledge in their paper’s conclusion, however, that the results of their experiments have some practical implications.

“This bias can clearly be horrific for victims of accidental shootings,” they write. “According to the American Civil Liberties Union, approximately 25% of all law enforcement shootings involve unarmed suspects and, although it is impossible to derive a precise number, it is certain that many similar accidental shootings occur among private citizens. It is therefore in the public’s interest to determine the factors that can lead to accidental shootings as well as measures to reduce the impact of these factors.”

Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Ross Williams on 03/23/2012 - 11:15 am.

    Bloody Nose

    As I understand it, Zimmerman was reported to have a bloody nose and a gash on the back of his head. If that is true, then there is no connection between this story and the death of Trayvon Martin.

    So we have the media creating a connection where none exists for the purpose of making the story timely. How does this media bias effect the perceptions of people like Zimmerman and contribute their fears? Was there any reason at all for Zimmerman to be carrying a gun? Would he have followed and confronted Trayvon Martin if he had not been armed? I think not.

    Was Trayvon Martin’s death a result of media induced hysteria? Very likely.

    Oh, is that unrelated? Just trying to make my comments timely.

  2. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 03/23/2012 - 12:51 pm.

    It is obvious from what Zimmerman said to 911 that he thought Martin was armed (hand in the waistband). He pursued, confronted and shot. I see the connection between this story and the Sanford incident.

    It is entirely clear that there is political currency and actual money to be made by the perceptions of being threatened (I’ll leave the “by what” up to you.). Just look at the the majority of guns being sold in the US now— AK47 style knockoffs, handguns for concealment, stubby shotguns–it’s all about defending yourself against an enemy.

    If you buy into that world-view, of course you believe that your “enemy” is armed and dangerous. And you behave as if they are.

    By the way Ross, what would you do if some stranger followed you, grabbed you, shouted at you, maybe pulled a gun? Self-defense works both ways. It is clear from Martin’s phone records, he was on the phone with his girlfriend to the very moment of the confrontation–hardly supporting the idea that Martin attacked Zimmerman.

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 03/23/2012 - 02:35 pm.

    Holding a gun

    I’m afraid I don’t follow Mr. Williams’ reasoning at all, timely or not. Possibly I’m just old and senile…

    Meanwhile, I think we can safely assume that the NRA and its allies in the Minnesota legislature (and legislatures around the country, including Congress) will bend heaven and earth to discredit anything that comes out of this study suggesting that perhaps carrying a handgun is less than the ultimate in civilized human behavior.

    Local NRA allies will perhaps start with Susan’s offhanded labeling of “carry laws” as “permissive.” It strikes me as a bit unusual in that there’s apparently no distinction made between “open” and “concealed” carry in Minnesota – carrying a handgun is carrying a handgun, whether it’s visible or not – but otherwise, Minnesota’s law seems more or less in line with other states in which I’ve lived. There’s always some sort of background check involved – an outrage to NRA zealots, an annoyance to those less devout – and it takes a while to get the permit. Loopholes, some of them sizable, make it a less-than-perfect system.

    With all that, however, it’s useful to note that perception, especially under stress, can be reality. If you’re already frightened or angry, and you’re carrying a handgun, and if you *believe* that the guy at the end of the block is armed and hostile, that could certainly incline you toward a course of action that you might not otherwise employ. I’d have to see quite a bit more research before I’d be willing to accept this study’s conclusions without reservation, but it does seem to be at least a first step.

  4. Submitted by r batnes on 03/23/2012 - 03:39 pm.

    Really, Ross? Zimmerman had a bloody nose

    and a gash on the back of his head before he died? The nerve of that kid to fight for his life before he was shot. I guess the moral of the story is don’t bring skittles to a gun fight.

  5. Submitted by Gary SHade on 03/24/2012 - 07:27 am.

    The problem with many of your assumption is…

    Many of you and the author of the study in public statements he has made have stated that Zimmerman may have believed Trayvon had a weapon. However, an eyewitness report (the eyewitness was on the phone with police at the time the shot was fired) stated that someone in a hood was on top of a guy in a red shirt (zimmerman) AND punching the man in the red shirt. The screams for help according to the witness were coming from Zimmerman. Zimmerman at this time and NOT before fired at his assailant killing him – again according to an eyewitness and Zimmermans account to the police.

    Here are the links to the interview with the eyewitness and another report of what is known at this time. While it is convenient to tie this study into the Florida shooting, I think that jumping to conclusions that the two are somehow related is a real stretch.

    • Submitted by Gerald Abrahamson on 03/24/2012 - 12:09 pm.

      Nice contradiction of (omitted) facts.

      The omitted facts are:

      1. Martin walked past Zimmerman who says he was out of his car/truck checking the street name (uh, he DOESN’T know the names of the streets where he lives AND “patrols”? Nice try, but…).

      2. Zimmerman FOLLOWS MARTIN ON FOOT. *Extremely* suspicious activity by Zimmerman. Follow in vehicle if *following*. But, if you are planning to do MORE than “just follow”, well then….

      The possible outcomes are:

      3.Martin sees he is being followed–and tries to protect himself (“stand your ground”–RIGHT?). Which means Zimmeran is the aggressor because he threatened Martin (“perception” of threat by Martin).

      4. The alternative is Zimmerman accosted/attacked Martin–and was LOSING that fight.

      So he pulled out his gun and killed Martin. Blatant manslaughter/murder–regardless of how you look at it.

      In ALL situations, Zimmerman is the aggressor–because he made a conscious choice and is following Martin when he should not have been doing so.

      Martin was suspended from school due to tardiness–which is not a crime, is it?

Leave a Reply