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Got yourself a gun

12 April 2012

Guns might look cool in the hands of a thin-lipped “Dirty Harry Callaghan” or a goggle-eyed Al Pacino but in reality they are powerful, nasty things. Guns aren’t meant to be used in simple ceremonies designed to quiet the soul, they don’t prompt gentle thoughts, and they pack a heck of a punch. Yes, guns can do a lot of physical damage but new research shows that the act of carrying a gun can also have a profound impact on your psyche.

Researchers from Notre Dame and Purdue University showed people multiple images of people on a computer screen and asked them to estimate whether the person in the picture was holding a gun or another object like a mobile phone. The images were varied so that sometimes the person in the image was wearing a ski mask or was of a different race.

While they performed the task the subjects either held a toy gun or a foam ball.

Whatever the changes made to the image, the researchers found that people who held a gun were much more likely to estimate that the person in the image was carrying a gun too. As a result they were more likely to engage in “threat behaviour” like raising the gun in order to shoot.

None of which of course, is any sort of validation for that absurd justification, “guns don’t kill: people kill”. All the evidence is that even the strongest arm will fail to propel a bullet at 1500 metres per second.

What it does show is that we perceive the world through a filter of our own situation and abilities. It suggests that people have a difficult time separating their ability to act and how they perceive a situation. In psychological terms, people perceive the spatial properties of their environment in terms of their ability to perform an intended action. In other words, if you can shoot someone, you are more likely to perceive the need to shoot someone.

It just might be that guns are not the tools that will deliver world peace, despite what some corporations that purvey weaponry might tell you.