Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Campus Shootings, Gun Control, Abstraction, and Choking Under Pressure

Guns and universities are a dangerous mix.

University of Texas
University of Texas
On September 28, 2010, I got to my office at the University of Texas after driving with the carpool. The day started unremarkably, but by 8:30, things changed. I got a text message from the University emergency system saying there was an armed suspect on campus. Warning sirens blared, and PA messages asked everyone to stay indoors. Four hours later, the campus lockdown was lifted. A 19-year-old student, Colton Tooley, had come onto the campus, shot an automatic weapon randomly, and then went into a library and shot himself. Thankfully, nobody else was hurt in this incident.

Ironically, a coalition of University of Texas student groups had planned to host a speaker that night who supported allowing students to carry concealed weapons on campus. Currently, the University of Texas (like many college campuses) does not allow students, faculty, and staff to carry weapons on the campus. The aim of the talk was to argue that campuses would be safer if more people on campus were armed. After some debate, the presentation was held at a bookstore off campus. I did not attend this meeting, but according to news reports, the speaker John Lott argued that an incident like the one on the Texas campus might have ended even faster had there been armed civilians in the area.

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As a university professor, the thought of an armed assailant on campus is frightening. I vividly remember hearing about the tragic shootings at Virginia Tech shootings in 2007 in which over 30 people were killed. I understand the impulse to want to give more people the chance to defend themselves in a situation in which they feel so helpless.

At the same time, as a psychologist, I do not think that arming civilians is the right way to protect our campuses. Let me give two reasons why: abstraction and choking under pressure.

Concealed Weapon
Concealed Weapon
Let's start with abstraction. When you think about an event that is distant from you in time and space, you think about it abstractly. Even though a tragic event had occurred that morning, most people were not physically present, and so they are likely to think of it in abstract terms. Descriptions people give of this event use general terms like "armed suspect" or "gun carrying civilian." From these very general words, it is easy to call to mind a scene from a movie where a quick-thinking sharp-shooting civilian bravely takes down a gunman who is terrorizing a crowd.

However, if we really want to think about arming civilians, we need to think about emergencies I specific terms. As uncomfortable as it may be, we have to think through the dynamics of a shooting situation. College campuses are crowded places. Just stand by the University Teaching Center at the University of Texas in the break between classes and see the mass of humanity flowing from one classroom to the next. If you placed a shooter into that context, there would be chaos. People would be running and screaming. The report of shots echoing in the stairwells would only increase the panic.

Now, add to that mix a few people with handguns pulled hastily from a shoulder holster or backpack. What exactly are they supposed to shoot at? How do they make the determination about when it is safe to take a shot at the gunman. And if five people in a crowd all pull their guns, how do they know which one is the terrorizer and which ones are the potential heroes?

That brings us to choking under pressure. High-stress situations like this generally do not bring out the best in people's performance. A colleague at the University of Chicago, Sian Beilock, has just written an excellent book called Choke: What the secrets of the brain reveal about getting it right when you have to, in which she explores the variety of factors that make people perform badly under pressure.

One thing that happens when the stakes are high is that the amount of processing ability that people have goes down. This processing ability, which psychologists call working memory, is what allows people to assess a situation. If your working memory capacity gets smaller, that decreases your ability to make good decisions.

Put yourself back in the chaotic scene now. There is a shooter. You are not sure where he is. You pull out your concealed gun. Suddenly, you hear a shot from off to your left, and from the corner of your eye, you think you see someone shooting. Do you shoot? What if you end up killing another would-be hero? What if you just saw someone raising his arm to get his balance. How would you know what to do?

As Beilock points out in her book, there are ways to perform well under stress. Air Force pilots train extensively to deal with mechanical failures that might occur in combat situations. Police and military personnel train under simulated emergency conditions to help them determine which people are likely to be dangerous, and which are probably civilians. Practice in stressful conditions makes people's performance better in real emergencies for a few reasons. It makes those real situations a bit less stressful, because the stressful event becomes familiar. In addition, this practice gives people routines that are likely to be successful. So, even if the stressful event lowers working memory capacity, people with training still have strategies that allow them to perform well.

Putting all of this together, then, there is just no strong argument for arming students, faculty, and staff on campus. When we think specifically about real emergencies it is clear that that adding extra guns into a chaotic situation is only a recipe for tragedy.

An edited version of this piece first appeared in the Op-Ed section of the Dallas Morning News.

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Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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