This article by Arthur Markman was first published on September 29, 2010 in the Dallas Morning News
Campus shootings, gun control, abstraction and choking under pressure
On Tuesday, I arrived at my office at The University of Texas at Austin after driving my son’s carpool to school. The day started unremarkably. By 8:30, things had changed. I received a text message from the university about an armed suspect on campus. Warning sirens blared, and public address messages asked everyone to stay indoors.
Four hours later, the lockdown was lifted. A 19-year-old student, Colton Tooley, had come onto campus, shot an automatic weapon randomly and was chased by police into a library, where he fatally shot himself. Thankfully, nobody else was hurt.
Ironically, a coalition of student groups went ahead with their plans to host a speaker that night who supports allowing concealed weapons on campus. The University of Texas (like many colleges) does not allow students, faculty or staff to carry weapons on campus. According to news reports, speaker John Lott said an incident such as Tuesday’s might have ended even faster had there been armed civilians in the area.
As a professor, the thought of an armed assailant on campus is frightening. After reading about tragedies such as the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings, I understand the impulse to give more people the chance to defend themselves in a situation in which they feel so helpless.
But as a psychologist, I don’t think arming civilians is the right way to protect our campuses. Let me give two reasons: abstraction and choking under pressure.
When we think about an event that is distant in time and space, we think about it abstractly. We use general terms like “armed suspect” or “gun-carrying civilian.” It’s easy to call to mind a scene from a movie in which a quick-thinking, sharp-shooting civilian bravely takes down a gunman who is terrorizing a crowd.
However, if we really want to think about arming civilians, we need to think about the specific dynamics of a shooting situation. College campuses are crowded places, with a mass of humanity always flowing from one classroom to the next.
Place a shooter into that context, and there is chaos. People running and screaming. Loud shots.
Now add to that a few people with handguns pulled hastily from shoulder holsters or backpacks. What exactly are they supposed to shoot at? How do they determine when it’s safe to shoot?
Such situations generally don’t bring out people’s best performances. University of Chicago psychologist Sian Beilock has just written a book called Choke, in which she explores why people often perform poorly under pressure.
When the stakes are high, people’s working memory, which allows them to assess a situation, diminishes. If your working memory capacity gets smaller, that decreases your ability to make good decisions.
Put yourself back in the chaotic scene. There is a shooter. You are not sure where he is. Suddenly, you hear a shot from your left and see someone shooting. Do you shoot? What if you end up killing another would-be hero? How do you know what to do?
As Beilock points out, there are ways to perform well under stress. Air Force pilots train extensively to deal with mechanical failures. Police and military personnel train under simulated emergency conditions to help them distinguish between perpetrators and bystanders.
Such practice makes real situations a bit less stressful, because they are more familiar. In addition, it provides routines that are likely to be successful. So, even if your working memory capacity is low, you still have strategies that allow you to perform well.
Putting all of this together, then, there is just no strong argument for arming students, faculty or staff on campus. When we think specifically about real emergencies, it is clear that that adding extra guns into a chaotic situation is a recipe for tragedy.
Arthur B. Markman is a psychology professor at The University of Texas at Austin.