By Dov Michaeli

Can't help it; it's in my DNA

It always puzzled me. Why is it that if you let loose a group of young children in a toy store, boys would gravitate to the toy gun section, girls to the dolls. Even when toy guns are not available, boys will point their fingers to simulate a gun when playing cops and robbers. Let me hasten to add that there is no evidence that boys playing with toy guns leads to increase in violent behavior in later years. Still, is there something genetic about it? Something cultural? Both?

The phylogenetic evidence

If you look at lower species you’d see that in a confrontation with a foe of the same species they try to look bigger. Just witness birds fluffing their feathers in a fight over territory or a desired female. Or a gorilla thumping his puffed chest so as to produce a deeper and louder sound, conveying a larger chest cavity. So it seems that size and strength are representations of formidability in most species, if not all.

Do humans use the same representational system of formidability?

Don't mess with him

Look at Rambo. Yes, he is pretty muscular, and of about average height. Still, if you saw him in his street clothes, and he kept his mouth shut, would you fear him as a dangerous man? But put all those weapons on him and he looks downright formidable. So how do humans perceive formidability? Do we use the same shorthand of size and strength that other animals use? After all, our society is more complex and there are more factors to consider in the equation of formidability. What if you are attacked by an average looking nerd? Of course his formidability is close to zero, and most likely you’d stand your ground. But what if you are attacked by one hundred of them? Are you going to engage them all, or just high tail it before it’s too late? What if the attacking nerd is alone, but he carries a gun?

All these issues were explored in a recent paper in PLoS ONE by a Daniel Fessler, Colin Holbrook and Jeffrey Snyder of the department of Anthropology at UCLA. In a series of studies they asked volunteers to estimate height and muscularity of images of people. They then told them that some of them carried a gun or a kitchen knife. When they were asked to rate height and muscularity again, the ones who were supposed to carry a weapon, be it a gun or knife, were judged to be taller, more muscular and more formidable than before.

So although humans have a much more complex social environment and more complex behaviors, we still judge formidability through the same shorthand of height and muscularity, just like our cousins the chimps and gorillas. Of course it makes sense from a natural selection point of view. In a confrontational situation there is no time for the brain to sort out all the factors that go into a final assessment whether to fight or to flee. It needs a shorthand that will allow it to make this judgment. For that the prefrontal cortex gets messages from all parts of the brain: height, muscularity, number of foes, their facial expressions, their blood-curdling war cries, the guns they carry. All these factors are assigned values in terms of size and strength and are presented to prefrontal cortex for executive decision about the formidability of the foe.

So why do men like guns?

Because it makes them look more formidable. Not surprising; birds do it, apes do it, so why not us? I remember watching a film clip of the Christian supremacist Hutaree militia training in the woods in Michigan. There they were: bespectacled, paunchy, looking for all intents and purposes like your family accountant or your supermarket bagger, except that they wore fatigues and carried awesome guns that your local police could not possibly afford. I am no stranger to guns; I saw serious combat in my army days. But these guys looked to me like they were doing this gun shtick because they had something to prove. A psychologist would have had a field day analyzing that.

Police mug shots of the Hutaree militia shorn of their military paraphernalia

Size and strength are well known to confer advantages in any society, including ours. Tall men are more likely to succeed in the corporate world, reaching higher management positions and garnering higher salaries. And just look at our presidents; they all look to me at least 6 ft tall. Did Dukakis have a chance standing next to George H.W. Bush?( Note added in proof: it was Bush Sr. not Reagan who towered over Dukakis). The most pathetic picture was him standing in a big tank and donning a helmet that swallowed his head. Could there be a better statement of “look how short I am; vote for the tall guy”?

Looking big and strong is not a product of our society, nor any other society. It has deep evolutionary roots, and our brains cannot help it but judge tall and muscular people as more formidable, and despite having similar qualifications as deserving of the most beautiful women, the most powerful positions, the highest incomes. Is this also the secret of the love affair between man and his gun?