The “Weapons Effect”: Seeing Firearms Can Prime Aggressive Thoughts

“Guns not only permit violence, they can stimulate it as well. The finger pulls the trigger, but the trigger may also be pulling the finger.”

— Leonard Berkowitz

Obviously, using a gun can increase aggression, but what about just seeing a gun? In 1967, Leonard Berkowitz and Anthony LePage conducted a seminal experiment showing that the mere presence of a gun can increase aggression.[1] They called this effect the “weapons effect,” and it has been replicated several times since then, both inside and outside the lab.[2]

For example, a nationally representative sample of over 2,000 American drivers found that those who had a gun in their car were more aggressive drivers (e.g., made obscene gestures at other motorists, aggressively followed other vehicles too closely) than were those who had no gun in their car, even after controlling for many other factors related to aggressive driving (e.g., gender, age, urbanization, census region, driving frequency).[3] A recent driving simulation experiment found similar results. Participants drove more aggressively if there was a gun on the passenger seat than if there was a tennis racket on the passenger seat.[4]

The best explanation for the weapons effect is priming — seeing a weapon can prime or activate aggressive thoughts in memory.[5] Of course, someone who has aggressive thoughts in their mind should behave more aggressively than someone who does not. One recent set of experiments explored the boundary conditions on the priming effect of weapons on aggressive thoughts using two large representative samples of American adults.

In Experiment 1 (N=470), participants saw photos of “good guys” with guns (i.e., police officers with or without military gear, soldiers), “bad guys” with guns (i.e., criminals), or plainclothes police officers without guns as a control. The accessibility of aggressive thoughts in memory was assessed using a word fragment task. Participants were asked to fill in missing letters in word fragments to form actual words. For example, the word fragment KI_ _ can be completed to form an aggressive word (e.g., KILL) or a nonaggressive word (e.g., KISS). Participants who saw photos of individuals with guns listed more aggressive words than participants in the control group, regardless of whether a “good guy” or a “bad guy” (criminal) held the gun.

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Experiment 2 (N=627) added a new condition — Olympians with guns used to shoot inanimate targets. The results replicated Experiment 1 for the “good guys” and “bad guys” who used guns to shoot people, but there was no difference between the Olympic athletes with guns and plainclothes police officers without guns.

These results show that guns used to kill people can prime aggressive thoughts in memory, regardless of whether a “good guy” or “bad guy” is holding the gun. But guns not used to shoot people, such as those used by Olympic athletes to shoot targets, do not prime aggressive thoughts. These findings support the priming hypothesis. They also have practical significance because there are plenty of guns in the world (especially in the U.S.) that can prime aggressive thoughts in people.

These findings are described in the article entitled Guns Automatically Prime Aggressive Thoughts, Regardless of Whether a “Good Guy” or “Bad Guy” Holds the Gun, recently published in the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science.

References:

  1. Berkowitz, L., & LePage, A. (1967). Weapons as aggression-eliciting stimuli. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 7, 202–207. DOI:10.1037/h0025008
  2. Benjamin, A. J., Jr., Kepes, S., & Bushman, B. J. (2018). Effects of weapons on aggressive thoughts, angry feelings, hostile appraisals, and aggressive behavior: A meta-analytic review of the weapons effect literature. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 22(4), 347-377. DOI: 10.1177/1088868317725419
  3. Hemenway, D., Vriniotis, M., & Miller, M. (2006). Is an armed society a polite society? Guns and road rage. Accident Analysis and Prevention, 38(4), 687–695. DOI: 10.1016/j.aap.2005.12.014
  4. Bushman, B. J., Kerwin, T., Whitlock, T., & Weisenberger, J. M.(2017). The weapons effect on wheels: Motorists drive more aggressively when there is a gun in the vehicle. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 73, 82-85. DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2017.06.007
  5. Benjamin, A. J., Jr. & Bushman, B. J. (2016). The weapons priming effect. Current Opinion in Psychology, 12, 45-48. DOI: 10.1016/j.copsyc.2016.05.003
  6. Bushman, B. J. (2018). Guns automatically prime aggressive thoughts, regardless of whether a ‘good guy’ or ‘bad guy’ holds the gun. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 9(6), 727-733. DOI: 10.1177/1948550617722202
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