boy playing with gun

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 lead 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 animals in the 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, if not all, species.


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? Maybe not. 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 paper in PLoS ONE by 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 supposedly carrying 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 an executive decision about the formidability of the foe.


So why do “real men” like guns?

Mug shots of the Hutaree militia without their paraphernalia
Mug shots of the Hutaree militia without their paraphernalia

I think it is because it makes them look more formidable. This shouldn’t be surprising, after all, birds do it and 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.

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 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 a man and his gun?

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.


  1. I live in perhaps the bluest of the blue states (Kalifornia) yet I am a fierce proponent of the 2nd amendment. I am a successful entrepreneur with a loving family and I’m in the highest tax bracket. I am well educated and have a degree from a top 25 business school. By all accounts I am the furthest thing from a “bubba” you can imagine. Still, my gun collection is large (and growing!) and I have a CCW permit to carry a gun everday. Yes, even to church.

    By the way, did either of you know that two of our most liberal U.S. Senators (Feinstein & Boxer) both have CCW permits despite the fact that they are publicly trying to strip away gun owner’s rights?

    My point: It’s difficult to make sweeping generalizations about red vs blue, etc…

    • Thanks Ryan, did not know about Feinstein & Boxer. But do think we have to balance gun owners rights with reasonable regulations (and enforcement) so that we have the best possible public health outcomes e.g., some restrictions on access for folks with history of perpetrating violence (including domestic violence), folks with serious mental health issues. If gun owner ship is a right, doesn’t it come with some responsibilities as well?

    • Ryan,
      Thank you for your comment. I’d like to point out that the post dealt with brain mechanisms involved in the perception of formidability. All male animals try to do it, including humans. It did not deal with educational levels (implied by “bubba”), nor did it deal with the second amendment. You have a right to go to church with your concealed gun, and belong to a “well-regulated militia”, regardless of your level of education or success in life. I am also a strong proponent of life imprisonment for an improper use of a gun which results in loss of life, but that’s only my personal opinion.

  2. And perhaps they are much more popular in red states because guys in red states are generally lower earners so they need something to make them look bigger. No coincidence that the most economically successful areas are the ones where people care the least about carrying guns except to oppose them.

    By the way, Dukakis didn’t stand a chance against Reagan for many reasons, the most important of which was, he wasn’tthe nominee. He ran against Bush 41, who of course was also much taller, as was Willie Horton.

    • Thanks Al. My bad re Dukakis/George H.W. Bush.
      An interesting take re red vs. blue states. It may suggest a strategy for counteracting the propaganda machine of the NRA. Something along the line that only bubbas who are somehow deficient in their manhood need guns to prove they are “real men”. Needs more refinement, but the essence is to expose the psychodynamics behind this obsession.

    • Al, your theory is so easily debunked:

      I won’t jump on the weakest point of the argument: That the article and your comment replaced the word “own” with the word “carry”; obviously to avoid criticism and scrutiny.

      I will say this: The more “economically” successful you are, the more affluent the neighborhood, the less need (or perceived need) there is to own a gun. This point is so simple to deduce, it doesn’t even require a source.

      But my comment is easily debunked too, because, as we all really know; most Americans own a gun; especially rich people.

      As of January 2016 there is over 500 million privately owned guns in the United States. The FBI processed 2.5 million background checks in January 2016 alone.




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