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Uncommon Knowledge

He looked like he had a gun

And more surprising insights from the social sciences.

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He looked like he had a gun

The recent killing of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenager in Florida, highlights a large gray area in firearm self-defense cases: Did the shooter really perceive his life to be in danger? New research from psychologists at Purdue and Notre Dame universities may make this gray area even bigger. They found that simply holding a gun yourself can make you think others have a gun, too. Students were positioned in front of a screen that flashed a picture of someone holding either a gun or another object while the student was holding either a gun or another object. The result: “Wielding the gun made participants more biased to act as if they had seen a gun and quicker to make this judgment.” The bias disappeared when students weren’t holding the gun, even if it was sitting next to them.

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Witt, J. & Brockmole, J., “Action Alters Object Identification: Wielding a Gun Increases the Bias to See Guns,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance (forthcoming).

Let the liberal freeze!

As if we needed more evidence that our differences are intractable, researchers at the University of Michigan found that people have trouble empathizing with political opposites who are in situations of physical need. In one experiment, researchers asked students who were either inside or outside during the winter to read a story with either a liberal Democrat or conservative Republican protagonist who gets lost in the woods without food, water, or extra clothes. Students who were outside and shared the protagonist’s politics were significantly more sensitized to the protagonist’s coldness. However, there was no extra sensitivity for coldness among students who were outside but didn’t share the protagonist’s politics. In a similar experiment, students who had eaten salty snacks without water were also extra sensitive to the protagonist’s level of thirst, but, again, not if the protagonist had different political views.

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O’Brien, E. & Ellsworth, P., “More Than Skin Deep: Visceral States Are Not Projected onto Dissimilar Others,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

How drinking shapes your politics

Note to the Republican Party: You might want to serve alcohol and give prizes for fast voting at the polls. Psychologists at the universities of Arkansas, Kansas, and Wisconsin found that people instructed to multitask, go fast, or go with their gut adopted more conservative attitudes. Moreover, people leaving a bar were more conservative the higher their blood-alcohol level, over and above the effect of their political identity, sex, and education.

Eidelman, S. et al., “Low-Effort Thought Promotes Political Conservatism,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (forthcoming).

The bright side of predatory interest rates?

One of the objections to the financial overhaul legislation passed by Congress in 2010 is that many regulations, while well-intentioned, nevertheless end up restricting access to credit. And while credit can be overextended, it also extends opportunity. According to a new study, this is exactly what happened several decades ago when many states lifted caps on credit card interest rates. Even though people in these states ended up with more debt and higher interest rates, access to credit cards made it easier for blacks to become entrepreneurs, bypassing discrimination in traditional financial channels. Indeed, the authors of the study find that states with a worse history of discrimination saw a bigger boost in black entrepreneurship as a result of credit card deregulation.

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Chatterji, A. & Seamans, R., “Entrepreneurial Finance, Credit Cards and Race,” Journal of Financial Economics (forthcoming).

Atheism in the foxhole

As the old saying about war goes, there are no atheists in foxholes. A new study seems to back that up, finding that atheists think less atheistically when confronted with death, even though they won’t admit it. When people were asked explicitly about their supernatural beliefs, those who were religious reported that they felt stronger supernatural beliefs after thinking about death, while those who were not religious reported weaker supernatural beliefs after thinking about death. However, when tested on their implicit associations of supernatural and real entities--a technique designed to get around self-censorship--those who were not religious demonstrated beliefs that were closer to those who were religious after thinking about death.

Jong, J. et al., “Foxhole Atheism, Revisited: The Effects of Mortality Salience on Explicit and Implicit Religious Belief,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (forthcoming).


Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist. He can be reached at kevin.lewis.ideas@gmail.com.