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.”
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.”