Published on August 1st, 2012 | by Brian Gendron
On Gun Control
In light of recent events, gun control has once again grabbed headlines around the United States. Regardless of your specific stance, there’s no denying that research in this arena is fascinating. Whereas psychologists have long studied the relationship between guns and aggression, here we will provide just a fraction of information for you.
Back in the 1960’s, researchers demonstrated that simply being in the presence of a gun might increase the likelihood of aggressive behavior. This is known as ‘aggressive cue value.’ Basically, we become conditioned to associate certain objects with certain behavior (in this case: gun=aggression).
The study was simple. Participants received between 1 and 7 electric shocks and were then given an opportunity to retaliate with 1 to 7 shocks in return. For some participants, there was a weapon (a rifle and/or handgun) on the table next to the electric shock switch. For other participants there was a random object (e.g., a badminton racquet) and for others still, there was no object at all.
Compared to the other two groups, those in the presence of a gun delivered significantly more electric shocks in retaliation. In other words, they were more aggressive. Keep in mind, this requires buying into the notion that delivering an electric shock in a laboratory setting is equivalent to real-world aggression.
Proponents of stricter gun control cite research of this ilk to claim that simply owning a gun or being in the presence of a weapon may prime one to think aggressively, and therefore actually engage in aggressive behavior. Outlaw guns, and we may be able to reduce this type of unwanted behavior.
On the other hand, those against gun control point to very similar research showing that guns are not the only objects that acquire aggressive cue value. In sports, for example, certain uniform colors (i.e., red and black) are associated with higher levels of aggression and penalties. Are we to then ban particular colors from being worn?
So where do we learn these associations? This is a topic we’ll explore in greater depth in the future, but from a young age we are most likely conditioned to associate certain colors and objects with specific behaviors such as aggression – just look at any cartoon villain and you’ll typically see a darker character compared to the protagonist.