I don't own a gun. But if I did go around with one, I'd probably be very much on edge since I'll quickly start to notice that a lot more people were packing heat too.
That's what researchers at University of Notre Dame have concluded after conducting a study to determine whether the simple act of wielding a gun alters the way people see the world. Previous studies have already suggested that visual perception can be highly subjective, depending on your attributes. For instance, it's been 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. However, can just picking up a gun suddenly make the world appear more violent?
To find out, the researchers subjected volunteers to a series of five experiments in which they 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 judged the person in the image to hold a gun. Regardless of the situation, the study showed that responding with a gun created a bias in which observers reported a gun being present more often than they 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,” said James Brockmole, a professor of Psychology and a co-author of the study . “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.”
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The researchers showed that the ability to act is a key factor in the effects by showing that while simply letting observers see a nearby gun didn't influence their behavior, holding and using the gun did.
“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 said.
The study is detailed in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance.
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