“Put ’em up, pal!”
No, that’s not right. Let me try again.
“It ain’t the size of the man, but the size of the tool he carries.”
Better, but still not quite it. How about this?
“Is that a gun in your hand or am I just scared to see you?”
Yes! That perfectly summarizes the peer-reviewed work of Daniel Fessler, Colin Holbrook, and Jeffrey Snyder in PLoS ONE with their paper “Weapons Make the Man (Larger): Formidability Is Represented as Size and Strength in Humans.”
What would you say to me were I to put it to you that “the phylogenetic antiquity of the importance of size and strength as determinants of formidability” together with “redundant experiences during development [underscore] the contributions of size and strength to formidability”?
Ah, skip it. Here’s what Fessler et alia did. They went to Craig’s List—no laughing—and solicited entrants for an experiment on rating manliness and gun size, or words similar to that. After screening out the “frivolous responses” they did a few experiments. The showed participants these pictures (row A for the Studies 1 and 3):
They then (in Study 3) asked participants to guess how tall the men were and to rate the muscularity of the men holding these items. Strappiness was selected by clicking one of these pictures:
To recap. The authors went to Craig’s List and solicited participants who were willing to look at men holding their guns (or other objects) and then, using just this information, to gauge the manliness of these grippers by pointing to pictures of vaguely disturbing cartoons.
In Study 3, the participants rated the .357 holder as being a mean 69.83 inches tall, the drillers a mean 69.31 inches, the saw bearers 69.64 inches, and the caulk brigade was a puny 67.54 inches. The muscularity results were similarly ranked and scored. Incidentally, 0.01 inches, the stated precision of this study, is one hundredth of an inch. See if you can hold your fingers that far apart.
It is necessary to point out that yours truly is 74.14 inches (in his bare feet), which according to this study is equivalent to a normal-sized man permanently carrying a fully loaded 12-gauge, double-barreled Remington: S-mart’s top of the line. This level of formidability is off the scale, which won’t be surprising to regular readers.
Anyway, here’s the meat for this study: “The men whose hands were pictured holding the .357 caliber handgun were estimated to be both taller and larger than all the other men (ps < .01).” Don’t forget that unlike with men and their guns, smaller is better with p-values.
Let’s put it another way. The authors found, using statistics, that the number 69.83 was “statistically significantly” larger than 69.64. This is just under a quarter of an inch, much less than the thickness of Tom Cruise’s Mini-Man Orthotic Sock Lifts®. Now I come to think on it, this paper might explain why that actor is frequently shown with dangerous objects in his hand.
Study 1 was nearly the same as Study 3, and with similarly small p-values. In Study 2 the authors showed the same pictures and asked participants to rate the dangerousness of the men’s tools. Results in their words:
As predicted, planned contrasts revealed that the handgun was rated as more dangerous than all of the other objects (ps<.000001). In contrast, the small handsaw was not rated as significantly more or less dangerous than the drill. Lastly, the large handsaw, though far below the handgun, was nevertheless rated as significantly more dangerous than the other objects (ps<.01) (of potential relevance here, the latest film in the Saw horror movie series was heavily advertised in the U.S., and enjoying commercial success, at the time that these studies were conducted).
I cannot resist quoting that their “findings constitute preliminary evidence in support of the hypothesis that conceptualized size and strength act as key dimensions in a cognitive representation that summarizes the formidability of a potential foe, where possession of a weapon is one factor contributing to said formidability.” Holding a gun commands respect.
Why this is so puzzles our authors, who feel that an explanative theory must be posited. They entertain the idea that “the postulated representational system is entirely the product of experience processed by a domain-general learning system, and hence does not reflect a discrete evolved adaptation” but reject that in favor of “a hybrid thesis that postulates the existence of an evolved adaptation, the successful functioning of which is at least partially contingent on predictably recurrent experiences during development.”
As usual, more research is needed. We still do not know why it is that “kitchen knives are associated with women, yet knowing that a man possesses a gun or a kitchen knife leads people to assess him as larger and more muscular.” Evolutionary psychology will provide the answer.
Thanks to Al Perrella who suggested this topic.