Reach for the Skies; or, Study Says Guns Make People Look Bigger

Huh. And I thought it was all in the camerawork.

A recent (April 2012) study at UCLA funded by the US Air Force has found that humans will perceive a man with a gun as larger than he really is. Study participants were asked to judge the size of men holding things like caulking guns, saws, drills, and handguns (and I’m assuming these weren’t cute little weapons that fit under a saloon girl’s skirts).

Like so.

No matter if the man in the photo was wimpy or bulky, the weapon-holding ones seemed to dwell in the participants’ collective mind’s eye as monolithic and dangerous–which proves why Silver Screen Western Heroes don’t have to say or do very much. That hogleg they’ve got holstered at their side makes them as bigass as a mountain.

To make sure people weren’t just equating guns with muscles, ala every Rambo movie, they showed also images of different sizes/strengths of men holding a kitchen knife (generally feminine associations), a paintbrush (generally masculine associations), and  a toy squirt gun. What did the participants choose as the largest men in the bunch? The men holding a kitchen knife–it’s the associated threat that makes the assailant bigger, not necessarily the objects they are holding.

As study  author Daniel Fessler, an associate professor of anthropology at UCLA, said in a statement, “Danger really does loom large — in our minds.”

The US Air Force funded this presumably to study decision making in potentially dangerous situations, but they could have saved some money by just studying a few westerns, where there are guns aplenty.

For example, check out this modern (2011) take on spaghetti western, Sal.

Call it an Chilean western, where in flat dry Atacaman landscape appears a mysterious stranger (a filmmaker from Spain), who meets a beautiful woman, a lethal group of gunhands, and very nearly his maker. Guns appear in almost every frame of this trailer, held to great advantage in innumerable poses lifted from the great spaghetti western scenes like vibrant Colorforms play pieces (Stick Like Magic!). It’s probably an excellent film–stylish, violent, mythic, and starring guns. I mean, big people wearing guns and looking bigger.

Or take a classic like High Noon, with the grim Kane (Gary Cooper) turning from his Quaker wife to strap on his shooting iron. The man looms like no other. And Gracy Kelly has never looked so beautiful, nor so big as when [spoiler alert!] she’s holding on to that gun at the end.

Don't underestimate the power of Grace Kelly, bucko.

But what about the lack of guns–Bad Day of Black Rock, which I rhapsodized about here, is all about the one-armed man who doesn’t need to stoop to the level of the common gun-carrying thugs of a small western town. His weapon of choice, which he chooses only when he is backed into the proverbial corner, is a Molotov cocktail, explosive and strategic, flaring up as it hits his nemesis and wreaking more damage than a bullet can do. Or he can just use his hand.


And for another kind of deadliness, give a listen to the other weapon of choice, the so-called feminine kitchen knife, in the chilling “The Southern Gothic Wedding Waltz” by the great Glenna Bell. Once you get on her site, click on Music and then the song. You’ll never know what stabbed you.

Oh heckola. I can’t help it. Must include the talk of the town with a gun.

Gratuitous Timothy Olyphant shot.



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