One reason people may find an adversary holding a gun frightening -- aside from the obvious reasons -- is that they may physically appear bigger.
A study out of the University of California-Los Angeles asked participants to estimate the size and muscular features of four men, but the participants would only see the hand and the object it held. When the object was a gun, the men were consistently labeled as bigger compared to when they held other objects.
"There's nothing about the knowledge that gun powder makes lead bullets fly through the air at damage-causing speeds that should make you think that a gun-bearer is bigger or stronger, yet you do," said Daniel Fessler, the lead author of the study and an associate professor of anthropology at UCLA, in a statement on the research. "Danger really does loom large -- in our minds."
The research is part of a larger project funded by the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research to evaluate decision making in potentially violent situations. For this study in particular, researchers think an "unconscious mental mechanism" associates the potential adversary with size and strength based on how threatening they appear. They believe is mechanism left over from our ancestors and is not associated with any real correlation between the size of those who own guns or cultural factors.
The study had more than 600 participants look at four pictures of different hands, each holding a single object: a caulking gun, electric drill, large saw or handgun. Live Science points out nearly 500 of the participants were women and the average age was 34. Fessler said tools were used to "rule out the possibility that a simple link with traditionally masculine objects would explain intuitions that the weapon-holders were larger and stronger." Participants were asked to estimate the size of each model, and were also shown images of men of different sizes and strengths and identified the one they felt best matched each hand model.
When participants saw hands holding guns, they estimated the size of the holder to be 17 percent larger than those holding other objects. The size and strength ranking based on objects held from largest/strongest to smallest/weakest is as follows: handgun, saw, electric drill and caulking gun.
The team also wanted to rule out the possibility that their results were in some way influenced by popular culture, so they conducted two other studies using less "macho" objects:
[...] a kitchen knife, a paint brush and a large, brightly colored toy squirt gun. In the initial round, a new group of 100 subjects was asked to evaluate the danger posed by each of the objects (which were presented alone, without hands holding them). They then were asked to pick the type of person most associated with the object: a child, a woman or a man.
As you might expect, the knife was seen as the most threatening and was associated with a woman, followed by the paint brush associated with a man and squirt gun associated with a child. When shown images of these objects being held by a man, the one holding the knife was judged bigger than those holding the less harmful objects.
"It's not Dirty Harry's or Rambo's handgun -- it's just a kitchen knife, but it's still deadly," postdoctoral scholar Colin Holbrook said in the statement. "And our study subjects responded accordingly, estimating its holder to be bigger and stronger than the rest."
Live Science reports researchers expecting these findings to someday have application in military strategies, but for now Fessler said more investigations are necessary to better understand how humans think in potentially aggressive situations.
The research was published in the April 11 edition of the journal PLoS One.
[H/T Huffington Post]