In a new study, anthropologists at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) determined that people tend to perceive those holding guns as being larger in size, and more muscular, than they are in reality. This has been known anecdotally for some time, but now scientists have proof.
During a series of tests, hundreds of participants were asked to rate the size and muscularity of four men. The trick was that the men themselves were not shown. Instead, test subjects saw images of their hands holding various objects, including guns.
According to a paper the team published in the latest issue of the peer-reviewed journal PLoS ONE, men holding guns were consistently rated as being larger and more muscular than they really were.
This suggests that our minds may be hardwired to make us think that aggressors wielding sings of their power are larger than they are. This difference in perception may be proportional to the severity of the threat, and guns represent an especially big threat, particularly in the United States.
“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,” researcher Daniel Fessler explains.
“Danger really does loom large – in our minds,” adds the expert, the lead author of the PLoS ONE paper, and an UCLA associate professor of anthropology. The new research may have stumbled across a little-studied, unconscious mental mechanism that gages threats.
Animals usually assess their adversaries in these absolute terms – size and strength. Researchers believe this may be an evolutionary adaptation that appeared on Earth hundreds of millions of years ago. It was present even during the time of the dinosaurs.
“We've isolated a capacity to assess threats in a simple way. Though this capacity is very efficient, it can misguide us,” UCLA anthropology postdoctoral scholar and study coauthor, Colin Holbrook, says.
What scientists are particularly interested in while conducting such investigation is how people perceive the likelihood of them winning a conflict. These perceptions are ultimately what drive their decisions on how to behave in any potentially dangerous situation.
This mechanism is probably connected to the brain's innate flight-or-fight response. Analyzing interactions between the two could yield some interesting results, scientists conclude.