Monday, June 7, 2021

A weapons effect-related pet peeve

One of the periodic irritants I experience is that of finding documents such as this amicus brief that cites one of my weapons effect papers (see the footnote on page 22). This is probably not the first time that work I have authored or coauthored on some facet of the weapons effect has been misused, and it most certainly won't be the last. Even when I still had reason to believe that there appeared to be a reliable causal relation between short-term exposure to weapons such as firearms and aggressive behavior, it was with the understanding that the behavioral effects we were measuring in the lab were fairly mild. If at any time I made more of the findings either collected or summarized, mea culpa. There is, even under the best case scenario in which research unequivocally shows a solid causal link between short-term exposure to weapons and lab-based measures of aggression, no reasonable way to jump to the conclusion that the same sort of exposure would produce violent behavior (primarily gun violence, which is what the attorneys are focused on in their amicus brief). 

 Even if I am fairly sympathetic to what these attorneys wished to accomplish, I really wish they would have consulted with me first. If nothing else, I would have pointed them to the meta-analysis (Benjamin et al., 2018) and suggested that positive findings in the literature needed to be taken with a grain of salt. I've been pretty clear about that since (see Benjamin, 2019, or Benjamin, 2021 for more details). Based on some preliminary meta-analytic work I've done pre-pandemic, I have reason to believe that many of the positive findings regarding the weapons effect can be chalked up to an experimenter allegiance effect. The upshot is that folks really need to be careful when they interpret this literature. The evidence is ambiguous, at best, and any suggestions that short-term exposure to weapons could explain gun violence probably have historical origins in a moral panic over media violence that has been on-going since at least the 1960s. 

In the meantime, since this appears to be a mess for which I bear some responsibility, I also bear some responsibility for cleaning it up. That's probably part of my life's work going forward, whether I like it or not. There are only a small handful of social psychologists who are legitimate experts when it comes to this body of work. I am, regrettably, one of them, and I am probably the one who is the proverbial skunk at the picnic. That can happen when the available data require one to be a skeptic. If folks really want to discuss this body of research with me, I'll do so. I will try to be less prickly or non-responsive, especially if I am convinced that whoever is contacting me is doing so in good faith. I may or may not tell you the story you want to hear, but I will tell you the story you need to hear - i.e., the truth as we currently understand it.

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