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Oculomotor examination of the weapon focus effect: Does a gun automatically engage visual attention?

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posted on 2016-02-15, 14:04 authored by Heather Flowe, Lorraine Hope, Anne P. Hillstrom
Background: A person is less likely to be accurately remembered if they appear in a visual scene with a gun, a result that has been termed the weapon focus effect (WFE). Explanations of the WFE argue that weapons engage attention because they are unusual and/or threatening, which causes encoding deficits for the other items in the visual scene. Previous WFE research has always embedded the weapon and nonweapon objects within a larger context that provides information about an actor’s intention to use the object. As such, it is currently unknown whether a gun automatically engages attention to a greater extent than other objects independent of the context in which it is presented. Method: Reflexive responding to a gun compared to other objects was examined in two experiments. Experiment 1 employed a prosaccade gap-overlap paradigm, whereby participants looked toward a peripheral target, and Experiment 2 employed an antisaccade gap-overlap paradigm, whereby participants looked away from a peripheral target. In both experiments, the peripheral target was a gun or a nonthreatening object (i.e., a tomato or pocket watch). We also controlled how unexpected the targets were and compared saccadic reaction times across types of objects. Results: A gun was not found to differentially engage attention compared to the unexpected object (i.e., a pocket watch). Some evidence was found (Experiment 2) that both the gun and the unexpected object engaged attention to a greater extent compared the expected object (i.e., a tomato). Conclusion: An image of a gun did not engage attention to a larger extent than images of other types of objects (i.e., a pocket watch or tomato). The results suggest that context may be an important determinant of WFE. The extent to which an object is threatening may depend on the larger context in which it is presented.


This research was supported by a grant from the British Academy, Grant number RM43G0120, and from the University of Leicester Capital Investment Fund



  • Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences

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FLOWE, H.D., HOPE, L. and HILLSTROM, A.P., 2013. Oculomotor examination of the weapon focus effect: Does a gun automatically engage visual attention? PLoS ONE, 8(12), pp. e81011.


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