Study finds guns automatically prime aggressive thoughts — even when wielded by a ‘good guy’

A recent study in Social Psychological and Personality Science has confirmed that not only can the mere presence of a gun increase aggressive thoughts but he also found that photos of individuals holding a gun primed aggressive thoughts in participants regardless of the subjects’ intentions or role in society (e.g. policeman, civilian, criminal).

Since the 60s, studies have tested whether the presence of a gun increases measured aggression in participants. The results of these studies have confirmed that the presence of a gun does indeed prime aggressive thoughts, a phenomenon referred to as the “weapons effect.”

The most widely accepted explanation for this effect is that weapons automatically prime aggressive thoughts. However, previous research has largely avoided acknowledging the role of contextual factors on the weapons effect. The purpose of the new study, conducted by Brad J. Bushman of Ohio State University, was to not only confirm the phenomenon but to examine the influence of contextual factors.

Specifically, he wanted to test whether seeing a photograph of different types of people holding a gun would still prime aggressive thoughts regardless of the perceived role of the subject. Bushman expected to find that regardless of the role and or appearance of the person with the gun, the photo would still prime aggressive thoughts.

The study was broken down into two separate experiments. The first experiment had 470 participants with ages ranging from 18-82 years old. Participants were shown 8 photos, each of which fell under one of five categories (all men and all the same race). These included: criminals carrying guns, soldiers in military gear with guns, police officers in military gear with guns, police officers in plain clothes and no guns, and lastly police officers in regular gear carrying guns.

In all the photos, the guns were intended to be used against human targets. After looking at the photos, participants were then asked to complete 22-word fragments as fast as possible in order to measure the accessibility of negative thoughts. Each fragment completed could potentially spell either an aggressive or non-aggressive word (e.g. KI_ _ could be perceived potentially as kiss or kill). Bushman expected that the individuals who saw pictures of people holding guns would have more aggressive thoughts compared to the group who saw pictures of people who weren’t holding guns.

The second experiment consisted of 627 participants with ages ranging from 18-80 years old. It was designed to be essentially just like the first experiment except that it included a sixth condition. The sixth condition is an added category of photos: Olympians holding guns intended for non-human targets. It was expected by the researcher that the photos of the Olympians with the guns would not prime aggressive thoughts because participants are aware that it’s only intended for non-human targets.

The results obtained from the two experiments largely supported Bushman’s hypothesis that regardless of who is holding the gun, the presence of a weapon primes aggression in participants.

The study discovered that the type of image that the participants were seeing had a significant influence on the number of word fragments that spelled aggressive words. For example, participants who saw photos of people without guns spelled out significantly less aggressive words compared to the groups of participants who saw people with guns. The study also found that the presence of a gun primed aggressive thoughts in participants regardless of whether the person carrying a gun was a good guy or a bad guy, or what type of clothing/gear they had on.

Lastly, Bushman found that participants who saw photos of Olympians with guns had significantly fewer aggressive thoughts than those who saw anyone else with a gun. This means it is likely that the intended use of the gun influences the degree to which aggressive thoughts are primed.

The main limitation to this study is that neither of the two experiments included a direct measure of aggressive behavior in participants — only aggressive thoughts. Further studies should attempt to replicate these results in a more formal laboratory setting.

The major contribution of this study is that it found that weapons intended to be used on human targets will elicit aggressive thoughts while weapons used on inanimate targets do not. With this knowledge we can adjust strategies for protection and defense that promote positive behaviors as opposed to such negative ones. It especially has potential in deescalating situations.

Bushman’s study has brought to the light the importance of examining contextual factors of observed phenomenon separately. The findings of his study could form the basis for future research, perhaps exploring the influence of other contextual factors on the “weapons effect.” Beyond that, the results provide useful information that can be used to change the way people think about and handle weapons.

The study was titled: Guns Automatically Prime Aggressive Thoughts, Regardless of Whether a “Good Guy” or “Bad Guy” Holds the Gun.