ADVERTISEMENT

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

ADVERTISEMENT

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.

ADVERTISEMENT

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

ADVERTISEMENT

Comments

READ THIS NEXT

How Ethanol And Heavy Metals In Alcohol Sachets Are Affecting Uganda’s Acoli People

Excessive consumption of ethanol, the intoxicating agent in alcoholic drinks, and the ingestion of heavy metals in contaminated foods and […]

New Approaches To Old Problems: Integrating Disciplines To Understand Lodging In Oats

Oats have been grown in Ireland since the Bronze age and once occupied a land area of over 1.5 million […]

Meiosis: Metaphase 2, Anaphase 2, Prophase 2

Meiosis refers to the process by which a single diploid cell divides into 4 haploid cells, each genetically distinct from […]

Remarkable Emissions Of Nitrated Phenols From Residential Coal Combustion

Coal, one of the most important energy resources, is widely used around the world in power generation, industrial production, household […]

Scientists Determine Probable Mechanism Behind Why Blue Light Harms Our Eyes

Exposure to blue light, which has shorter wavelengths than types of light, can damage our eyes over time. Blue light […]

Investigating Mechanisms Of Cancer Cell-Intrinsic CYP Monooxygenases That Contribute To Tumor Progression

There has been great interest in finding structural targets in cancer for the widely prescribed type 2 diabetes drug metformin. […]

Updated Census For Work-related Fatal And Non-fatal Injuries And Illnesses By Animals In The US

Compared to the general population, workers can be more vulnerable to animal-related injuries and illnesses. Injuries and illnesses to workers […]

Science Trends is a popular source of science news and education around the world. We cover everything from solar power cell technology to climate change to cancer research. We help hundreds of thousands of people every month learn about the world we live in and the latest scientific breakthroughs. Want to know more?