New research finds people look bigger when they are holding a gun. They look 10 feet tall if the gun is pointed at you.
UCLA anthropologists asked hundreds of Americans to guess the size and muscularity of four men based solely on photographs of their hands holding a range of easily recognizable objects, including handguns.
The research, which publishes today in the scholarly journal PLoS ONE, confirms what scrawny thugs have long known: Brandishing a weapon makes a man appear bigger and stronger than he would otherwise.
"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. "Danger really does loom large — in our minds."
Researchers say the findings suggest an unconscious mental mechanism that gauges a potential adversary and then translates the magnitude of that threat into the same dimensions used by animals to size up their adversaries: size and strength.
"We've isolated a capacity to assess threats in a simple way," said Colin Holbrook, a UCLA postdoctoral scholar in anthropology and co-author of the study. "Though this capacity is very efficient, it can misguide us."
The study is part of larger project funded by the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research to understand how people make decisions in situations where violent conflict is a possibility. The findings are expected to have ramifications for law enforcement, prison guards and the military.
"We're exploring how people think about the relative likelihood that they will win a conflict, and then how those thoughts affect their decisions about whether to enter into conflict," said Fessler, whose research focuses on the biological and cultural bases of human behavior. He is the director of UCLA's Center for Behavior, Evolution and Culture, an interdisciplinary group of researchers who explore how various forms of evolution shape behavior.
For the study, the UCLA researchers recruited participants in multiple rounds using classified advertisements on the websites Craigslist and MechanicalTurk. In one round, 628 individuals were asked to look at four pictures of different hands, each holding a single object: a caulking gun, electric drill, large saw or handgun. Keep on reading...