A series of Air Force-funded experiments that seem to confirm what most warriors long have known: Brandishing a weapon makes a man appear bigger and stronger than he would otherwise. (David Goldman / The Associated Press)
Daniel Fessler noticed something strange one day on his way to go mountain biking.
Decked out in biker's body armor as he drove up to a trailhead in the Southern California hills, the UCLA anthropology professor says he "just felt badass."
"I'm wearing all this gear, I felt powerful, I felt big. I thought, ‘That's really weird. Where does that come from?'"
That question sparked a series of Air Force-funded experiments that seem to confirm what most warriors long have known: Brandishing a weapon makes a man appear bigger and stronger than he would otherwise.
To test his theory, Fessler and his team asked hundreds of online volunteers to guess the size and muscularity of four men based on photographs of their hands holding objects ranging from knives and handguns to caulking guns and water pistols.
The result: Study participants consistently judged pistol-packers to be taller and stronger than the men holding the other objects, even though the experiment's four hand models were recruited on the basis of their equivalent hand size and appearance. Men holding guns were judged to be 17 percent taller and stronger than those judged to be the smallest and weakest men.
The study, recently published in a peer-reviewed journal, is part of a larger project funded by the Air Force's Office of Scientific Research, tasked with trying to understand how people make decisions when things are about to get ugly.
"We're exploring how people think about the relative likelihood that they will win a conflict, and then how those thoughts affect their decisions about whether to enter into conflict," says Fessler, director of UCLA's Center for Behavior, Evolution and Culture.
He says the findings suggest we tend to size up potential adversaries — literally — by the magnitude of the threat they pose. The bigger the threat, the larger they tend to loom in our mind's eye.
It's a trick, but one that can serve us well, Fessler says: Whether you're a pilot on a strike mission, a ground commander in an ambush or a mountain biker barreling down the side of a hill, "if you have to stop and write everything down like you're doing your budget, you're dead."
Of course, it can also be misleading. If you think of the bad guys as larger than life, you'll be prone to making false assumptions.
"Suppose I show you a lineup of insurgents," Fessler says. "If your unit has recently been victorious and I ask you which of these guys do you think is a typical insurgent, you'll pick out a short guy. And if your unit has taken heavy casualties recently, you'll pick out a taller guy.
"What you think of as typical isn't based on perception — what we see with our eyes — it's based on these representations in our head. At least that's what we think is going on."