Personality Disorders

How Holding a Gun Inhibits Mentalization

What's mentalizing got to do with nonviolence?

Posted Jan 20, 2014

Shooting Stars, artist Hank Willis Thomas, 2005

So suggests a study conducted by Jennifer Klinesmith in which 18 to 22-year-old college students were led one at a time into a room where they sat at a table with an object on it. Each young man was instructed to disassemble the object and then reassemble it according to uniform instructions.

For half the group the object was a pellet gun that simulated a Desert Eagle automatic firearm. The other half of the men worked with a children's game: Mouse Trap. Klinesmith determined testosterone through saliva samples taken before and after the object encounter. After taking apart then reconstructing the object, individuals were asked to add Frank's Red Hot Sauce to a 3-ounce cup of water. The men who interacted with the gun spiked the water three times as much as the toy assemblers. Conclusions from the study showed testoterone increased significantly in gun handlers compared to those putting together the child's toy. Klinesmith hypothesized that holding a gun increases the potential for aggressiveness and plays a role in the subjective shift from feeling compassion to feeling competition.

Importantly, as gun handling increases a man's testosterone level it inhibits the capacity for mentalization. Mentalization is the ability to reflect on the emotional states of oneself and others. (Peter Fonagy) This means being able to think and talk about what is going on in one’s mind and the mind of another. We also mentalize intuitively when we interact with other people, on a gut level, in the give and take of a reciprocal social exchange. One example is taking turns in a conversation, being sensitive to pauses in dialogue and inviting the point of view of your partner in discourse even as you contribute that of your own.

We learn to be aware of the thoughts and feelings of others because someone in our childhood during early attachment has thought of us as a feeling and thinking being. A child who is deprived or neglected, who experiences inadequate recognition as a person has impaired ability to mentalize and is vulnerable to loosing imagined mental states when anxious or regressed.

Mentalization regulates affect and gives us the ability to distinguish between inner and outer realities. While thoughts and feelings may potentially cause action, they are separate and distinct from an action in the external world. This basic human capacity evolves from earlier, more primitive mental states of “psychic equivalence” where the distinction between internal and external realities is confused or conflated.

In the moment when a person looses mentalizing capacity their feelings of shame and humiliation are experienced as real, as an actual threat to individual identity and violence can ensue as a mentally justified form of self-defense.

Basketball and Chain, Hank Willis Thomas, 2003

Martin Luther King Day calls for thought on the power of mentalization as a strategy of nonviolence.  Being able to hold a space in mind for oneself and others is something like that “warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice” (King, “I Have a dream”).  Making representations of our entwined emotional lives helps us “rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.”


"Guns, Testosterone, and Aggression: an experimental test of a mediational hypothesis." Klinesmith J, Kasser T, McAndrew FT. Psychological Science; 2006 July;17(7):568-71.

Affect Regulation, Mentalization and the Development of the Self. Fonagy, P, Gergely, G, Jurist E, Target, M. London: Karnac, 2004.

Artist Hank Willis Thomas is represented by the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York City and Goodman Gallery in South Africa.

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