Trayvon Martin Killing and New Psychology Study on Gun Perception Whip Media Into Frenzy

Pyschology professors at Notre Dame and Purdue University this week announced a study showing that a person carrying a gun is more likely to "see guns in the hands of others."

It was coincidence that the release of the findings coincided with national outrage over the slaying of Florida teen Trayvon Martin. Study author James Brockmole tells New Times that 170 news articles have mentioned his study in the past few days, some of which attempt to use his findings to contextualize the murder. Is that a bad thing? 

"I think it's dangerous to try to take a singular event and know exactly what occurred in someone's mind at that instance in time," Brockmole says. "We don't want to politicize our results; they don't have a political purpose. We're not here to argue gun control or make any claim about culpability."

The study, slated for publication in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Perception and Performance, gave people a toy gun or a foam ball and then flashed pictures of people on a computer screen. Participants were asked to determine if the people in the pictures were holding a gun or something else, like a cell phone. When the study participants were holding a toy gun, they were more likely to say the people in the picture were also holding a gun. 

"Context for Fla. Shooting?" The Washington Post asked in the headline of an Associated Press story. "Florida teen's slaying spotlights phantom gun effect," read a Reuters headline in the Chicago Tribune. "Study says Florida shooter could have shot Trayvor Martin simply because the watch captain was armed," wrote the Tuscon Citizen, misspelling the victim's name along the way.

Brockmole says it's fine that "the media is couching the study" in the Martin case,  but he's a bit concerned that the "media is making it all about guns."

"We have experiments in the paper showing that if you give someone a shoe, they're more biased to see someone holding a shoe," he says. "Guns are a dramatic example of a situation where you can really change the action a person is engaged in. Mistaking a shoe doesn't have quite the same possible dramatic consequences as mistaking a firearm... Whatever spin is being added in the media, and it's definitely being added, it's not one we're trying to fuel or direct."

When asked if the findings should be considered by legislators weighing something like Florida's so-called "stand your ground law," Brockmole avoids a direct answer. 

"The more we understand about human behavior and what people are inclined to do in specific situations, the more we know about what kind of outcomes will or can occur," he says. "I don't think it will be harmful for legislators to know what kind of possible outcomes will come from their laws."

Brockmole adds that his students have been scouring the comments of the numerous stories discussing the death of Martin and the new study, and general readers have posed some good questions. Among them is concern over the study population. Would the findings have been different if police officers or experienced gun users were studied? 

Brockmole says those are questions that need to be answered. 

While academics tend to be pleased when the media pick up on their research, Brockmole says he wishes such a tragic event didn't have to be the catalyst in this instance.

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Chris Sweeney