Belief superiority, guns, and faulty data: A recipe for frustration

I’ve been seeing a lot of memes, conversations, and sarcastic comments online lately about gun control, especially with Obama’s latest executive order. The content is usually somewhere along the lines of “We should prohibit guns like we prohibit drugs, because no one does drugs anymore, right?” Which is supposed to be funny and point out the blatant “idiocy” of how making something illegal doesn’t stop people from using it. Get it?

Here’s where I get frustrated. Because do I really have to go into the difference between illegal and regulated and point out that no one is making it illegal for Americans to arm themselves? Do I have to state the fact that expanding regulations would ensure that people with violent backgrounds can’t purchase a gun at a gun show without a proper background check? Or that closing loopholes and supporting inter-state communication about gun sales and background checks would make it more difficult for someone to buy a gun in one state from a pawn shop and use it to commit a shooting in another state?

Never mind the fact that the argument not to do something because some people will try to do it anyway is a weak one.

Some pro-gun/anti-regulation advocates have cited a study recently released by the Crime Prevention Research Center (CPRC) as evidence that expanding background checks to include private transfers of guns won’t prevent mass shootings. The study claims that the frequency of mass shootings actually increases in states with background checks on private transfers, thus negating the need for expanded gun regulations as an effective means of protection.

In addition to this study’s fundamental error of conflating correlation with causation and ignoring missing data, it should be noted that the founder of the CPRC is gun researcher Dr. John Lott. His research, including additional work conducted by the CPRC, has come under scrutiny before and has largely been discredited. It’s not surprising that this study was not published in an academic peer-reviewed journal. Although the peer review process admittedly has its own glitches, it’s still the gold standard for ensuring that published studies are rigorous, impactful, and contain plausible conclusions. Hence, my reluctance to give credence to this particular study that many in the anti-regulation gun crowd are using as a rallying cry.

What’s happening with the gun debate and other polemical issues is something beyond people clinging to discredited data or researchers like Lott drawing conclusions that favor their beliefs. A recent NYTimes editorial talks about the extreme perspective on gun control taken by many of the current Republican presidential candidates, labeling them the “hear-nothing gun crowd,” aka the anti-regulation folks, who essentially refuse to engage in meaningful debate or even conversation about gun control. In fact, Ted Cruz preempted Obama’s public announcement about the gun regulation executive order by publicly condemning it before the specifics had been released; other Republican candidates responded in suit.

Aside from an obvious display of highly partisan politics (business as usual on the Hill), research on belief superiority1 may explain the playing field here. Belief superiority describes people who have more strongly held (“extreme”) beliefs who see these beliefs as superior to others’. This tendency seems to hold true regardless of direction (i.e., far-right or far-left viewpoints), although the issues may vary for self-identified liberals and conservatives. In a 2013 study of more than 500 participants published in Psych Science, those who identified as very conservative or very liberal on a particular issue were significantly more likely to agree that their beliefs are superior. Moderates or “neutral” participants were more open-minded and willing to consider beliefs that didn’t align perfectly with their own.

From Feeling superior is a bipartisan issue: Extremity (not direction) of political views predicts perceived belief superiority. Psychological Science, 2013

These findings suggest that all of us, regardless of political ideology, are a bit biased at times. Combined with misinterpreted data, such as Lott’s skewed conclusions, rigid beliefs can produce counterproductive and immoveable perspectives.

So, take this for what you will: is the new executive gun order an attack on the Second Amendment, regardless of what the empirical evidence suggests? Are anti-regulation advocates just using it as another opportunity to espouse the same viewpoints, essentially hearing nothing? Don’t take the rhetoric and snide remarks about Obama’s “pointless” new gun regulations at face value. Consider the way belief superiority works and recognize that the more strongly held beliefs about guns people have, the less likely they may be open to alternative viewpoints. And also recognize this: guns aren’t being made illegal. These new regulations are likely to have a positive impact. Isn’t it worth trying?



1 – Toner, K., Leary, M.R., Asher, M.W., & Jongman-Sereno, K.P. (2013). Feeling superior is a bipartisan issue: Extremity (not direction) of political views predicts perceived belief superiority. Psychological Science, 0956797613494848.


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