Bigger, taller, stronger: guns change what you see

PloS ONE Credit/Stephanie d'Otreppe

Mean size of hand models holding various weapons.

A new study out of UCLA suggests that when people wield a gun, they don't just feel bigger and stronger — it makes others think they are bigger and stronger.

In the study, survey participants were asked to look at pictures of a hand holding various items, including a power drill, a caulk gun, a large saw and a .45-caliber handgun. When asked to guess the height, size and muscularity of the men behind the pictures, people thought the gun-wielding hand models were consistently taller, bigger and more muscular than the rest.

Daniel Fessler, an anthropologist and head of the UCLA Center for Behavior, Evolution and Culture, was the study's lead author. He tells NPR's Audie Cornish that the study doesn't measure people's perceptions so much as it measures people's representations, or "how they store and manage information in their heads."

"What we're trying to explore is the process that leads to decision-making in situations of potential violent conflict," he says.

Fessler and his team believe that when people are faced with potentially violent conflict, they start forming a mental image of their adversary that includes features that could contribute to how dangerous they are.

"Then when it comes time to make a decision," he says, "you don't need to pay attention to all the information that contributed to the size and the shape of the image, you just pay attention to the image. If the image is small and non-muscular, then you might attack; and if the image is large and very muscular, then you retreat; and if the image is somewhere in between, then you negotiate or appease."

Fessler says his research isn't yet at a place where it can be used on the ground by people who encounter potentially violent situations on a daily basis, like servicemen or police officers. But it does contribute to understanding how people decide to attack — useful information if you ever find yourself in a violent conflict.

Fessler says his research also contributes to understanding the mindset of third-party observers. He explains that conflicts often have people watching from the sidelines, trying to decide which side to support, a decision that is in part influenced by who they think will win.

"If we have a way of better tapping into how they're thinking about who's going to win, then we have a way of forecasting which side those third parties are likely to take," he says. "And frequently it's the case that the decisions of those third parties are crucial in determining the outcome of the conflict."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio.

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