UCLA Study Finds People Perceive Men Carrying Guns as Bigger Than They Actually Are

Posted on April 13, 2012

Hand Holding Gun

UCLA anthropologists asked hundreds of Americans to guess the size and muscularity of four men based solely on photographs of their hands holding a range of easily recognizable objects, including handguns. The research, published here in PLoS ONE, found that holding a weapon makes a man appear bigger and stronger than he would otherwise. The photograph above is one that was used in the study.

Daniel Fessler, the lead author of the study and an associate professor of anthropology at UCLA, says, "There's nothing about the knowledge that gun powder makes lead bullets fly through the air at damage-causing speeds that should make you think that a gun-bearer is bigger or stronger, yet you do. Danger really does loom large - in our minds."

The UCLA researchers recruited participants for the study using classified advertisements on the websites Craigslist and MechanicalTurk. In one round, 628 individuals were asked to look at four pictures of different hands, each holding a single object: a caulking gun, electric drill, large saw or handgun. The individuals were then asked to estimate the height of each hand model in feet and inches based solely on the photographs of their hands. Participants also were shown six images of progressively taller men and six images of progressively more muscular men and asked to estimate which image came closest to the probable size and strength of the hand model.

The researchers say the study participants consistently judged the pistol carriers to be taller and stronger than the men holding the other objects, even though the experiment's four hand models were recruited on the basis of their equivalent hand size and similar hand appearance (white and without identifying marks such as tattoos or scars). On average, participants judged the handgun carriers to be 17% taller and stronger than those judged to be the smallest and weakest men - the ones holding caulking guns.

In another round of testing a new group of 541 individuals was shown male hands holding a kitchen knife, paint brush and squirt gun. They were asked to estimate the height and muscularity of the hand models. Men holding the kitchen knife were judged to be the biggest and strongest, followed by those holding the paint brush and the squirt gun.

Related Studies: A study earlier this year found that people with a spider phobia perceive spiders as larger than they actually are.

Photo: Daniel Fessler/UCLA

More from Science Space & Robots