The Weapons Effect and The Banksy Effect: The Social-Psychological Problem of Guns and Gun Violence, and A Proposed Solution.
By Robert Hanna
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The Weapons Effect and The Banksy Effect: The Social-Psychological Problem of Guns and Gun Violence, and A Proposed Solution
Since at least 2015, I’ve been thinking and writing philosophically about guns and gun violence from a specifically moral and sociopolitical point of view, and also working intermittently on an essay called “Gun Crazy: A Moral Argument For Gun Abolitionism” (Hanna, 2015, 2022).
Recently, in the wake of the Buffalo and Uvalde mass shootings, I’ve also been reading and thinking philosophically about a series of fascinating, but also very scary-&-troubling, studies in social psychology about what’s called the weapons effect, whereby merely presenting or representing guns — even toy guns, or visual images of guns, including hard-copy based or internet-based images, cartoons, drawings, photographs, TV, movies, videos, video-games, and so-on — to people, causes the arousal of aggressive feelings in those people, and pre-reflectively primes them for gun violence.
Here’s an informative synopsis extracted from a 2021 article by the social psychologists Brad Bushman and Daniel Romer:
Guns not only permit violence, they can stimulate it as well. The finger pulls the trigger, but the trigger may also be pulling the finger.
— Leonard Berkowitz (Berkowitz, 1968: p. 22)
In discussions of gun violence, one factor that is rarely considered is the fact that merely seeing a gun can increase aggression. This effect, called “the weapons effect,” is conspicuously absent from debates about gun violence. Yet, the weapons effect is not a newly discovered phenomenon. It was first reported in a 1967 classic experiment conducted by Leonard Berkowitz and Anthony LePage… [Berkowitz and LePage, 1967]. Since 1967, the weapons effect has been replicated many times, including outside the lab. In a recent driving simulation experiment …, for example, participants were seated in a car that had either a handgun or a tennis racket on the passenger seat. As in the Berkowitz and LePage experiment …, participants were told that the object on the seat was part of a different experiment that the other experimenter forgot to clean up, and that they should ignore it. As in the Berkowitz and LePage experiment, they apparently could not ignore it. Participants were significantly more aggressive drivers when there was a gun on the passenger seat than when there was a tennis racket on the passenger seat. For example, they were more likely to speed, tailgate, pass drivers on the shoulder, crossing double yellow lines into oncoming traffic, swear at other drivers or use obscene gestures, or collide into other vehicles. These findings also mirror the results from survey studies. For example, one survey of a nationally representative sample of 2770 American drivers found that those with a gun in their vehicle, compared to those with no gun in their vehicle, were significantly more likely in the past year to make obscene gestures at other drivers (23% vs. 16%), tailgate (14% vs. 8%), or both (6.3% vs. 2.8%), even after controlling for several factors related to aggressive driving…. A 2018 meta-analysis integrated the results from all available weapons effect studies, which included 151 effect-size estimates from 78 independent studies involving 7668 participants . A meta-analysis is a quantitative literature review that combines the statistical results from all studies conducted on a topic. The studies integrated in this weapons effect meta-analysis used a variety of operational definitions for key variables. This meta-analysis found a significant weapons effect when the results from all studies were integrated. The weapons effect was significant for provoked and unprovoked participants, for males and females, for participants of all ages, for college students and nonstudents, and even for toy weapons. The weapons effect was also positively correlated with the year the study was conducted, indicating that the weapons effect is getting larger over time. In the meta-analysis, all average effect sizes were in the predicted direction, with weapons having a positive impact on aggression-related outcome variables…. As we have seen, people are sensitive to the appearance of weapons, and these experiences can introduce hostile perceptions that would otherwise not exist…. The National Rifle Association notes, “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” But guns are not just neutral stimuli either. As Professor Len Berkowitz noted, although the finger pulls the trigger of a gun, “the trigger may also be pulling the finger.” Research on the weapons effect shows that the mere sight of a weapon can make people more aggressive. (Bushman and Romer, 2021: pp. 29, 30, 35–36)
So, diametrically in opposition to those who believe or at least claim that guns are required for self-defense, the weapons effect shows that in fact even only carrying a gun, whether concealed or openly, actually significantly increases the risk of gun violence, or even itself precipitates gun violence, thereby endangering the gun-carriers themselves and others significantly more than if they had not been carrying a gun — a bitter irony.
Aside from this already very significant implication of the weapons effect, there are three other equally important things about the weapons effect studies.
First, the weapons effect studies have been reconfirmed and replicated many times since 1967, so they’re in very good shape as regards empirical scientific methods and results.
Second, the weapons effect holds up across all kinds of people.
Third, built into the structure of the weapons effect studies themselves, when the gun or gun-representation is freely or spontaneously replaced by a benign or non-violent item or a representation of a benign or non-violent item, especially including animals or plants, then the weapons effect disappears or is in any case suppressed and all-around better states of mind are produced in people instead (see, e.g., Bartholow et al., 2005).
This of course directly entails that the free or spontaneous replacement of guns or representations of guns, by benign or nonviolent organic items or by representations of benign or nonviolent organic items, actually counteracts the weapons effect and produces non-violent and all-around better states of mind in people instead.
This point, in turn, leads me to postulate something I’ll call the Banksy effect, named after the British artist Banksy’s famous flower-thrower image shown at the head of this essay, in which a depicted violent anarchist’s or terrorist’s bomb or other weapon has been freely or spontaneously replaced by the image of a bouquet of flowers, and therefore, by defeating our cognitive expectation of seeing a bomb or other weapon in the violent anarchist’s or terrorist’s hand, it vividly counteracts any weapons effect that one might have experienced when looking at the original image, and produces non-violent and all-around better states of mind in people instead.
Let’s now suppose that the Banksy effect is just as empirically real as the weapons effect.
Then this in turn leads me to propose that
if (i) governments or some other well-funded social institutions systematically offered, to those who already own, carry, or use a gun, that these social institutions would buy back those people’s guns and ammunition for much more than they paid for them, and also offered them a free plot of good gardening land, free access to a watering/irrigation source, free plants or seeds, free fertilizer or mulch, and free gardening equipment, in return for the guns-and-ammunition buy-back, together with their freely signing a permanent no-guns pledge that would have binding legal force, to the effect that if they ever owned, carried, or used guns, then they’d have to give back the plot of gardening land and also reimburse the cost of everything else they’d been supplied with, and
if (ii) essentially the same initiative as described in (i) were also made available to anyone who didn’t already own, carry, or use a gun, provided that they also signed the permanent no-guns pledge, and
if (iii) popular culture and media, including both hard-copy based and internet-based images, cartoons, drawings, photographs, TV, movies, videos, video-games, and so-on, were simultaneously flooded with representations of people holding guns that were then freely or spontaneously replaced by representations of the same people holding bouquets of flowers, fruit, vegetables, gardening equipment, etc., and/or actively cultivating gardens,
then (iv) implementing all three of the initiatives described in (i) to (iii) simultaneously would almost certainly produce some fairly widespread all-around non-violent and beneficial effects on many people’s states of mind and lives.
Of course, the weapons effect isn’t the only factor that pre-reflectively shapes people to own, carry, or use guns, and enact gun violence: there’s also a classical liberal or neoliberal Hobbesian/neo-Hobbesian belief that’s almost unshakeably held by many or even most people (in the USA, especially), that human animals are inherently egoistic and mutually antagonistic (deterministic or indeterministic) automata, hence without coercive authoritarian States and other State-like social institutions, the coercive weapons held and deployed by them, constant surveillance, police or military enforcement, and the criminalization of people who refuse to comply with laws and other rules issued by those States or State-like institutions, followed by the incarceration or other coercive punishment of those who don’t comply, then society would inevitably collapse into the war of all against all (Hanna, 2020): so, by owning, carrying, or using guns, people thereby become little monadic mirrors of the coercive authoritarian State, even or especially when, as for example in the USA, they purport to justify the owning, carrying, and use of guns by self-deceivingly believing, or at least claiming, that they need guns in order to defend themselves against the coercive authoritarian State, the very State that fully enables their gun ownership, gun carrying, gun using, and gun violence by (so far) permanently legally entrenching and sustaining The 2nd Amendment to the US Constitution — another bitter irony.
In this connection, then, here’s a proposal for extending the Banksy effect in order to (begin to) debunk and exorcise that almost unshakeably held classical liberal or neoliberal Hobbesian/neo-Hobbesian belief.
In Banksy’s original one-frame image, a bomb-throwing or other weapon-throwing mask-wearing black-&-white etched lone violent anarchist or terrorist has been transformed into a dignitarian anarchist, simply by means of freely or spontaneously substituting a bouquet of bright-colored flowers for the weapon.
But in the extended Banksy effect, Banksy’s original one-frame image of a flower-throwing mask-wearing lone non-violent black-&-white etched dignitarian anarchist is now transformed into an image of dignitarian anarcho-socialism, by freely or spontaneously morphing it into a complex, dynamic image — for example, an animated or documentary-style video — of unmasked people of all ages, genders/sexes, ethnic/racial types, language-groups, and socioeconomic classes, all wearing colorful clothing, and peacefully cultivating the flowers together.
If, as I’ve assumed, the Banksy effect is just as empirically real as the weapons effect, then the extended Banksy effect should be just as empirically real as the other two effects, and effectively prime people to implement or at least support the three initiatives I described [several paragraphs above].
This proposed solution to the social-psychological problem of guns and gun violence — i.e., the three-part proposal [described above], together with the extended Banksy effect — is fully grounded in and therefore presupposes three nested philosophical theories: (i) the essential embodiment theory of the mind-body relation and mental causation (Hanna and Maiese, 2009; Hanna, 2011), (ii) the mind-shaping and life-shaping theory of social institutions and sociality (Maiese and Hanna, 2019; Hanna, 2021; Maiese et al., 2022), and (iii) the cognitive-semantic theory of thought-shapers (Hanna and Paans, 2021).
In a complete version of my proposed solution, I’d most certainly want to present, unpack, and defend those three theories in sufficient detail as well; but for the purposes of this little essay, I wanted to formulate something brief and directly accessible, without my also having to lay out the heavy-duty philosophical background material.
So, to conclude for now: the Bible urges us to hammer our swords into plowshares; in the idiom of 1980s rock music, I’m urging us to turn our guns into roses; but above all, as Voltaire so cogently exhorted us in the final sentence of Candide, “Il faut cultiver notre jardin”: we must cultivate our garden (Voltaire, 1959: p. 120), now also conceived as our global garden (Hanna and Paans, 2022).[i]
[i] I’m grateful to Michelle Maiese for thought-provoking conversations and correspondence on and around the topics of this essay.
(Bartholow et al., 2005). Bartholow, B., Anderson, C., Carnagey, N., and Benjamin Jr, A. “Interactive Effects of Life Experience and Situational Cues on Aggression: The Weapons Priming Effect in Hunters and Nonhunters.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 41: 48–60.
(Berkowitz, 1968). Berkowitz, L. “Impulse, Aggression, and the Gun.” Psychology Today. 2:19–22.
(Berkowitz and Le Page, 1967). Berkowitz, L. and LePage, A. “Weapons as Aggression-Eliciting Stimuli.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 7:202–207.
(Bushman and Romer, 2021). Bushman, B. and Romer, D. “The Weapons Effect.” In N.A. Dodgson (ed.), Adolescent Gun Violence Prevention: Clinical and Public Health Solutions. Cham: Springer. Pp. 29–38.
(Hanna, 2011). Hanna, R. “Minding the Body.” Philosophical Topics 39: 15–40. Available online in preview HERE.
(Hanna, 2015). Hanna, R. “A World With Persons But Without Guns Or The Death Penalty. Oxford University Press Blog. 29 November. Available online at URL = <http://blog.oup.com/2015/11/world-without-guns/>.
(Hanna, 2020). Hanna, R. “On Rutger Bregman’s Humankind: Optimism For Realists, Or, Neither Hobbes Nor Rousseau.” Unpublished MS. Available online HERE.
(Hanna, 2021). Hanna, R. “Our Sociable Sociality: A Postscript to The Mind-Body Politic.” Borderless Philosophy 4: 57–96. Available online at URL = <https://www.cckp.space/single-post/bp4-2021-robert-hanna-our-sociable-sociality-a-postscript-to-the-mind-body-politic>.
(Hanna, 2022). Hanna, R. “Gun Crazy: A Moral Argument For Gun Abolitionism.” Unpublished MS. Available online HERE.
(Hanna and Maiese, 2009). Hanna, R. and Maiese, M., Embodied Minds in Action. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press. Available online in preview HERE.
(Hanna and Paans, 2021). Hanna, R. and Paans, O. “Thought-Shapers.” Cosmos & History 17, 1: 1–72. Available online at URL = <http://cosmosandhistory.org/index.php/journal/article/view/923>.
(Hanna and Paans, 2022). Hanna, R. and Paans, O. “Creative Piety and Neo-Utopianism: Cultivating Our Global Garden.” Unpublished MS. Available online HERE.
(Maiese et al., 2022). Maiese, M. et al. “The Shape of Lives to Come.” Frontiers in Psychology Research Topics. Available online at URL = <https://www.frontiersin.org/research-topics/25439/the-shape-of-lives-to-come>.
(Voltaire, 1959). Voltaire. Candide Trans. L. Bair. New York: Bantam.
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