Could carrying a gun be messing with your mind? A new study from the University of Notre Dame found that if you’re holding a gun, you are more likely to think others are packing heat as well.
According to the release, the study was led by Notre Dame’s Associate Professor of Psychology James Brockmole, a specialist in human cognition and how the visual world guides behavior, with a colleague from Purdue University. The research team conducted five experiments where participants, who either held a toy gun or a neutral object, viewed images of people on a computer screen and were asked to determine if they were holding a gun or another object, such as soda bottle or cellphone:
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 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.
The researchers showed that the ability to act is a key factor in the effects by showing that simply letting observers see a nearby gun did not influence their behavior; holding and using the gun was important.
Brockmole said that this study shows that “people have a hard time separating their thoughts about what they perceive and their thoughts about how they can or should act.” Brockmole said in addition to “theoretical implications for event perception and object identification,” this research could also be considered for law enforcement and public safety implications. The infamous shooting of Amadou Diallo by plain clothes New York City police officers in 1999 comes to mind as an example. Diallo was unarmed and when approached by police at his doorstep who asked him to show his hands. Diallo reached into his pocket with his wallet in hand. In the low morning light, police identified this object as a gun and shot Diallo 19 times.
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