Sunday, February 17, 2019

This post did not age well

Sometimes I find it informative to look at my old blog posts. If nothing else, I get a reminder of how I was thinking about some concept or issue at the time. In the process, I occasionally find that I have done a 180 in the intervening months and years.

Case in point: a post from June 2016 about Apple removing rifle emojis from its line of mobile phones. When I posted that one, the meta-analysis I was working on led me to some overly optimistic conclusions. Some additions to the database, followed by a much-needed correction to that database would throw cold water on those optimistic statements about that research just a mere one and a half years later.

Keep in mind that at the time I made that post, I and my then-second author honestly believed that the findings in our meta-analysis on the weapons effect indicated that the mere exposure to a weapon (including images, and even emojis) was sufficient to increase aggressive behavior. It's just that once we had correct evidence in front of us, it was time to draw some different conclusions. Really, a clear-eyed account of the literature on the weapons effect from its early days onward suggests a skeptical stance is more appropriate. Live and learn.

Apple's decision to remove a rifle emoji was arguably overkill. I understand the inclination to act. After all, mass shootings (however defined) are way too common in the US, and responsible corporations do not want to be viewed as encouraging that sort of violence. I get it. I just don't think removing the emojis actually helped. As of the publication of that post, Apple still had toy emojis of rifles and knives. Those too are probably harmless. Why the change? To my knowledge, there is no solid evidence that short-term exposure to any sort of weapon leads to criminal violence. Heck, it is unclear if short term weapon exposure even has an impact on the mildest of aggressive behaviors we can measure in the lab. The evidence, based on our meta-analysis, is inconclusive at best.

Obviously, those of you who have ever stumbled on to this blog know that I consider gun violence (including mass shootings) to be a serious social and public health concern, and that we as a society need to do far more to prevent such events from happening. Risk factors such as the widespread availability of firearms and individuals' prior history of violent behavior will be more helpful in getting a handle on this important problem. Weapons effect research in its current form? Not so much.

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