Weapons Make the Man Larger: New Scientific Growth Formula

My! Don't he look big!“Put ’em up, pal!”

No, that’s not right. Let me try again.

“It ain’t the size of the man, but the size of the tool he carries.”

Better, but still not quite it. How about this?

“Is that a gun in your hand or am I just scared to see you?”

Yes! That perfectly summarizes the peer-reviewed work of Daniel Fessler, Colin Holbrook, and Jeffrey Snyder in PLoS ONE with their paper “Weapons Make the Man (Larger): Formidability Is Represented as Size and Strength in Humans.

What would you say to me were I to put it to you that “the phylogenetic antiquity of the importance of size and strength as determinants of formidability” together with “redundant experiences during development [underscore] the contributions of size and strength to formidability”?

Ah, skip it. Here’s what Fessler et alia did. They went to Craig’s List—no laughing—and solicited entrants for an experiment on rating manliness and gun size, or words similar to that. After screening out the “frivolous responses” they did a few experiments. The showed participants these pictures (row A for the Studies 1 and 3):

Don't move or I'll caulk you!

They then (in Study 3) asked participants to guess how tall the men were and to rate the muscularity of the men holding these items. Strappiness was selected by clicking one of these pictures:

Your author posed for one of these pictures: guess which

To recap. The authors went to Craig’s List and solicited participants who were willing to look at men holding their guns (or other objects) and then, using just this information, to gauge the manliness of these grippers by pointing to pictures of vaguely disturbing cartoons.

In Study 3, the participants rated the .357 holder as being a mean 69.83 inches tall, the drillers a mean 69.31 inches, the saw bearers 69.64 inches, and the caulk brigade was a puny 67.54 inches. The muscularity results were similarly ranked and scored. Incidentally, 0.01 inches, the stated precision of this study, is one hundredth of an inch. See if you can hold your fingers that far apart.

It is necessary to point out that yours truly is 74.14 inches (in his bare feet), which according to this study is equivalent to a normal-sized man permanently carrying a fully loaded 12-gauge, double-barreled Remington: S-mart’s top of the line. This level of formidability is off the scale, which won’t be surprising to regular readers.

Anyway, here’s the meat for this study: “The men whose hands were pictured holding the .357 caliber handgun were estimated to be both taller and larger than all the other men (ps < .01).” Don’t forget that unlike with men and their guns, smaller is better with p-values.

Let’s put it another way. The authors found, using statistics, that the number 69.83 was “statistically significantly” larger than 69.64. This is just under a quarter of an inch, much less than the thickness of Tom Cruise’s Mini-Man Orthotic Sock Lifts®. Now I come to think on it, this paper might explain why that actor is frequently shown with dangerous objects in his hand.

Study 1 was nearly the same as Study 3, and with similarly small p-values. In Study 2 the authors showed the same pictures and asked participants to rate the dangerousness of the men’s tools. Results in their words:

As predicted, planned contrasts revealed that the handgun was rated as more dangerous than all of the other objects (ps<.000001). In contrast, the small handsaw was not rated as significantly more or less dangerous than the drill. Lastly, the large handsaw, though far below the handgun, was nevertheless rated as significantly more dangerous than the other objects (ps<.01) (of potential relevance here, the latest film in the Saw horror movie series was heavily advertised in the U.S., and enjoying commercial success, at the time that these studies were conducted).

I cannot resist quoting that their “findings constitute preliminary evidence in support of the hypothesis that conceptualized size and strength act as key dimensions in a cognitive representation that summarizes the formidability of a potential foe, where possession of a weapon is one factor contributing to said formidability.” Holding a gun commands respect.

Why this is so puzzles our authors, who feel that an explanative theory must be posited. They entertain the idea that “the postulated representational system is entirely the product of experience processed by a domain-general learning system, and hence does not reflect a discrete evolved adaptation” but reject that in favor of “a hybrid thesis that postulates the existence of an evolved adaptation, the successful functioning of which is at least partially contingent on predictably recurrent experiences during development.”

As usual, more research is needed. We still do not know why it is that “kitchen knives are associated with women, yet knowing that a man possesses a gun or a kitchen knife leads people to assess him as larger and more muscular.” Evolutionary psychology will provide the answer.


Thanks to Al Perrella who suggested this topic.


  1. DAV

    I once believed that no one would bother with a study to determine if being shot in the head was detrimental to health. Given this study, which seeks to determine if a man holding a gun appears more dangerous than one holding a paint brush, I think I’ll have to reconsider my belief.

    Isn’t the average male height 70 inches**? So doesn’t Study 3 indicate that holding a .357 magnum makes the holder appear 0.17 inches smaller?

    **in the US and most of Europe according to Wikipedia — they’re always right, no?

  2. Carmen D'oxide

    Whew, I don’t use Craigslist so I guess I don’t need to be scared of guys smaller than me brandishing guns. One fewer thing to worry about at the p<.01 level. However, I'll retain my policy of never arguing with a woman holding knife — until top-notch research says to do otherwise, of course.

  3. Briggs


    Perhaps we’re on safer ground with this: “According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the average height for an adult male in the United States is: *69.2 inches, or *5 feet 9.2 inches. This statistic for the average height for an adult male is from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) conducted from 1999-2002.”

  4. Bruce Foutch

    This reminds me of the story floating around at the height of the cold war when the size of your weapon seemed to be everything. Apparently, just as the US – USSR one-upmanship rhetoric was reaching new heights, the USSR placed an order to a US company for condoms to be manufactured to their supplied specifications, which were, how shall I phrase this, generous in their dimensions. After considering the request and making sure there were no restrictions on the sale, the company supplied the order as specified. However, in an act of one-upmanship escalation, the company shipped the order in boxes labeled ‘SIZE – SMALL’.

  5. Speed

    Many on-line sources report John Wayne’s height as 6′, 4″. Wikipedia states that Clint Eastwood was also 6′, 4″ tall although other sources say he has grown shorter (?) with age.

    Maybe without the guns they would have been closer to 5′, 9″.

  6. Rich

    Did they test the idea that the respondents were extrapolating from the size of the male part visible, that is, the hand? I’ve seen kitchen knives of that exact design in sizes ranging from three inches to twelve. Depending on which size of knife I assume it is that guy is tiny or huge. Same with the paint brush. I have no experience of hand-guns and couldn’t draw any conclusion at all from those pictures.

    Did they examine the obvious and really useful idea that the more muscled you are the greater the probability that the elastic in your shorts will fail?

  7. Jerry

    From the Abstract:

    “This work was supported by the United States Air Force Office of Scientific Research under Award #FA9550-10-1-0511.”

    So happy to see my tax dollars being put to such an essential purpose.

    /sarc off

  8. DAV


    Interesting. The later “National Health Statistics Reports, Number 10, October 22, 2008” has (All race and ethnicity groups, United States 2003–2006 http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nhsr/nhsr010.pdf):

    for 20+: mean 69.4 in, 176.3 cm
    but for 20-29: mean 69.9 in, 177.6 cm

    The increase may be due to increasing prevalence of handguns.

  9. Some say it isn’t the weight of the handgun that works against a man’s height. It’s the necessity of carrying around all that supporting and permitting documentation that wear’s them down.

  10. Eddy

    Huh, I would have said the guy with the small hand saw was the largest of the group. Of course I would base this on the size of my tools which are, for the sake of portability, relatively small and I believe I have the same keyhole saw. Would it polite to mention that on first glance I felt this was a joke and thought the hand holding the Beretta was female? Still do actually.

  11. max

    Kudos for working an Army of Darkness reference in.

  12. Rich

    Okay maybe it is me but each of the men seem to be the same height but becoming more muscular as the pictures progress to the right, (Something in that maybe 🙂

    So the respondents are coming up with heights based on how muscular the person looks? My PhD committee would rip this study to pieces in a heart beat

  13. Joke

    I am a 74.5″ 280lbs man and I was wondering if there were any suggestions from this study on which guns made the men look the most muscular? Would a .44 make me look more muscular than a .357 perhaps? I need to know so I know what to carry to my next date.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *