Hold Gun: Move to Threat Level Orange

Violence prevention may be aided by psychological assessment of gun perception

(RxWiki News) Our perceptions of the world around us can guide our everyday behavior and reinforce our actions. Now, new knowledge of how we perceive guns could have implications for law enforcement and violence prevention.

New research suggests that those who are currently wielding a gun are more likely to believe that others are wielding a gun as well. This perception may help justify an increase in threatening behavior as well.

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"Beliefs, expectations, and emotions can all influence an observer's ability to detect and to categorize objects as guns," says James Brockmole, Ph.D., an Associate Professor of Psychology at Notre Dame.

Study subjects were given either a toy gun or a neutral object, like a foam ball. Then, they were shown images of people on a screen who were holding a gun or a neutral object.

The subjects were then asked to react to the images. For example, they might be asked to point their toy gun at the screen if they felt the person on screen had a gun.

The researchers found that those who were holding a toy gun were more likely to perceive that they had seen a gun on the screen.

The research team did five trials, changing the images on screen each time. Sometimes the people on screen were wearing ski masks - they also changed the races of the people on screen. Those who were holding a toy gun remained more likely to see a gun.

"One reason we supposed that wielding a firearm might influence object categorization stems from previous research in this area which argues that people perceive the spatial properties of their surrounding environment in terms of their ability to perform an intended action," says Brockmole.

The researchers believe that deeper knowledge of how we perceive threats could have implications for law enforcement and public safety, aiding in violence prevention.

The study will appear in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Perception and Performance. 

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Review Date: 
March 23, 2012