A core tenet of the human "fight or flight" response begs the question, is this guy bigger than me? A recent study suggests that answer depends on if he's wielding or not. Turns out, our brains might give a subconscious size advantage to opponents if they're holding a weapon.
Dr Daniel Fessler and a team from UCLA recently published the findings in the journal Public Library of Science. Height and build are two easy measures of an opponent (think Schwarzenegger vs Timberlake), so the team devised an experiment to see if people's perceptions of size actually changed depending on what the opponent was holding.
According to The Economist:
To test his theory, Dr Fessler recruited 628 volunteers and asked them to gauge the height (in feet and inches), overall size and muscularity (both on a six-point scale) of four men, ostensibly on the basis of pictures of their hands. In fact, all the hands in the photos were nearly identical. What differed from picture to picture was what they were holding. Objects included a caulking gun, a power drill, a handsaw or a 0.45 calibre handgun.
The researchers duly found that the handgun holders were judged to be 0.2 inches (0.5cm), 0.5 inches and 2.3 inches taller than those who held a saw, drill and caulking gun, respectively. These results more or less matched the scores on the other two formidability measures, with the gun-holders consistently coming top. They also reflected the perceived relative danger posed by each object, as determined in a separate study.
The team also re-ran the test with large kitchen knives instead of guns and the results were the same. The primitive parts of our brain are hard-wired for threat analysis, and when they recognise additional dangers this is apparently how they tell us. However, most people would agree that radiating waves of yellow energy would be a far superior means of demonstrating fighting prowess than something as subtle as an extra two inches. [The Economist]