Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Do We Control the Weapons or Do the Weapons Control Us?

Thinking about one place where cognitive work in psychology overlaps with social psychology, the weapons effect. In the late 60s, psychologists Berkowitz and LePage showed that just seeing a weapon causes people to act more aggressively. Contemporary researchers Bartholow, Anderson, and Benjamin have furthered the work by showing that seeing a weapon primes the brain for aggressive thoughts and makes aggressive actions more likely.

We're told by the National Rifle Association and other gun advocates that guns don't kill people, people kill people, but the fact is that the presence of a weapon does create a mindset in which we are more likely to inhabit a mental space where we will think about killing someone and have more of a predilection than normal towards doing so. The idea that we are neutral, rational agents and that weapons are mere tools is false, the weapons alter our psychology itself.

But the laws governing the possession of weapons is based largely on the Enlightenment concepts of rights and freedom which presuppose the naive view that we are purely rational beings. Given that we can scientifically show that we are not, how should law change? Should the results of psychology alter the way we structure society or are general notions like rights something that are extra-scientific, not open to challenge by the way the world happens to be?