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Man with a Weapon Looks Bigger and Stronger

Update Date: Apr 16, 2012 01:26 AM EDT

A Man looks bigger and stronger when he is holding a weapon, according to a new study. 

A UCLA research, published April 11 in PLoS ONE,  asked hundreds to estimate the size and muscularity of four men based solely on photographs of their hands holding a range of easily recognizable objects and found that brandishing a weapon makes a man appear bigger and stronger than he would otherwise. 

"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," said Daniel Fessler, the lead author of the study and an associate professor of anthropology at UCLA. "Danger really does loom large - in our minds." 

The team recruited participants in multiple rounds. 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. 

They were then asked to guess 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. 

On average, participants judged pistol-packers to be 17 percent taller and stronger than those judged to be the smallest and weakest men - the ones holding caulking guns. Hand models holding the saw and drill followed gun-wielders in size and strength.  
Concerned that their findings might be influenced by popular culture, which often depicts gun-slingers as big and strong men, the team performed two more studies using objects that did not have a macho image: a kitchen knife, a paint brush and a large, brightly colored toy squirt gun.

In the initial round, a new group of 100 participants was asked to evaluate the danger posed by each of the objects. They then were asked to pick the type of person most associated with the object: a child, a woman or a man.  Individuals rated the knife most dangerous, followed by the paint brush and squirt gun. And they most often associated the most lethal object - the kitchen knife - with women. The paint brush was most often associated with men, and the squirt gun with children. 

In the final round of tests, a new group of 541 subjects was shown male hands holding the knife, paint brush and squirt gun and was then asked to estimate the height and muscularity of the hand models. Once again, men holding the most lethal object - in this case, the kitchen knife - were judged to be the biggest and strongest, followed by those holding the paint brush and the squirt gun. 

"It's not Dirty Harry's or Rambo's handgun - it's just a kitchen knife, but it's still deadly," Colin Holbrook, a UCLA postdoctoral scholar in anthropology and co-author of the study, said. "And our study subjects responded accordingly, estimating its holder to be bigger and stronger than the rest."

The team say the findings suggest an unconscious mental mechanism that gauges a potential adversary and then translates the magnitude of that threat into the same dimensions used by animals to size up their adversaries: size and strength.

The study is part of larger project funded by the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research to understand how people make decisions in situations where violent conflict is a possibility. The findings are expected to have ramifications for law enforcement, prison guards and the military.

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