Guns Make People Look Bigger, Says New Study


Feeling lucky?

Who knew? Researchers from UCLA report this finding in their article, "Weapons Make the Man (Larger): Formidability Is Represented as Size and Strength In Humans," published this week in the online journal PLoS One. From the study:

In order to determine how to act in situations of potential agonistic conflict, individuals must assess multiple features of a prospective foe that contribute to the foe's resource-holding potential, or formidability. Across diverse species, physical size and strength are key determinants of formidability, and the same is often true for humans…

A wide variety of cognitive representations draw on bodily experience, often without explicit recognition of the relationship between representations and their sources. This suggests that representations of relative formidability may be the product of lived events. Even in peaceful societies, from infancy onward, children inevitably have the recurrent experience that conflicts are won by the bigger, stronger person. Hence, over the course of development, size and strength may come to play a central role in representations of relative formidability.

If representations of a potential foe employ conceptualized size and strength as a medium for summarizing formidability, then augmenting the foe's formidability should cause the actor's conception of the foe's size and strength to increase. In humans, weapons are a primary determinant of victory in dyadic violence, and the modern handgun is prototypic in this regard. We therefore sought to test the above prediction by exploring whether knowing that someone possesses a gun increases estimations of that person's size and strength.

Guess what? It does. As the study reports:

Knowing that an individual possesses a potentially lethal object, be it a handgun or a kitchen knife, led our U.S. participants to generally conceptualize the target individual as taller and larger in overall body size and muscularity. Our auxiliary investigations indicate that these patterns are not explicable in terms of cultural schemas linking bodily properties to the objects at issue, nor can they be explained in terms of background knowledge regarding the actual properties of gun owners. These findings constitute preliminary evidence in support of the hypothesis that conceptualized size and strength act as key dimensions in a cognitive representation that summarizes the formidability of a potential foe, where possession of a weapon is one factor contributing to said formidability

Prior work in humans indicates that information regarding an individual's social status also influences perceptions of the individual's size. Recently, Marsh, Yu, Schechter, and Blair demonstrated that nonverbal cues associated with social status exercise a similar influence. In humans, status can reflect either dominance (i.e., position achieved through force or the threat thereof), prestige (i.e., position achieved through deference freely granted by others in light of accomplishments), or a combination of these factors. While dominance is a universal feature of status hierarchies in social animals, prestige is thought to be unique to humans. This suggests that the psychological mechanisms with which humans navigate status hierarchies initially evolved to address dominance, and were subsequently modified in our lineage to also address prestige. We can therefore expect that the human representational systems that address status, having evolved from systems concerned with formidability, likely employ physical size to summarize diverse factors affecting social position.

On the other hand, this study brings to mind the old saying: "God made men, but Sam Colt made them equal."