Perception and Action: Seeing Guns That Aren't There

If we hold a gun, we are likely to see a gun, even when it isn't there

Posted Dec 21, 2012

Trevon Martin’s case is no longer front page, but a new study from Colorado State University’s Jessica Witt, associate professor of cognitive psychology, may shed light on the tragic incident and may provide some scientific data to the gun control debate.

Martin, you may remember, was shot dead by George Zimmerman. Zimmerman was a neighborhood watchman when he saw Martin. He was suspicious of Martin who, according to Zimmerman, was "cutting in-between houses...walking very leisurely for the [rainy] weather" and "looking at all the houses." Zimmerman’s stop of Martin led to an altercation, with the encounter ending with Zimmerman shooting Martin in what he claimed was self-defense.

Witt’s study, which is not about the Martin case in particular but about perception and action as a cognitive phenomenon, shows that when one person holds a gun they are primed to perceive other people as holding guns. Witt had more than 200 subjects divided into two groups and each viewed images on computer screens and were asked whether the figures held guns or some neutral object. The difference between the two groups was that one held a Wii gun, the other held a rubber ball.

The study’s conclusion: “A majority of students were more biased to perceive the figure in the photograph as holding a gun – even when it was a shoe – when they also held a gun than when they held a rubber ball.”

“Your ability to respond influences what you see. Specifically when you can respond with a gun, that creates a bias to see guns,” Witt said.

Witt’s study suggests Zimmerman may have believed that Martin had a gun because he himself had one. This doesn’t discount other possible motives in the killing, such as stereotypes and prejudices, but it does add one other factor to our complicated mix of reasons to act irrationally.

Our actions, Witt argues, alter what we see. If we hold a gun, we are likely to see a gun, even when it isn’t there.

Witt’s study has implications beyond a particular crime. One argument being put forward against gun control says that if more people were armed, we’d all be safer. But that seems to be doubtful.

The Witt study shows how easy it is for perceptions to be biased. And having a gun leads to a bias that puts innocent people at risk.

Witt says, “For the most part, gun owners care about safety, they lock up guns, they’re careful about who they let use their weapons. We think they’re going to want to know other risks. In this case, another risk is a perceptual bias to see guns when they are holding a gun. Gun owners who care about safety will want to take safety precautions against this bias. We don’t know what those are yet, but those need to be researched.

“We hope that this research leads to safer gun use.”

Doesn’t everyone?

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