Trust, Gun Control, and Neuroscience

It may be hard to imagine, given the horrific events of Newtown Connecticut, but violence of almost all types has been declining rapidly in the US and around the world.

That’s the story in the book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, a sweeping psycho-historical view of human nature by Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker. Pinker makes the case with some compelling data, though his ideas may be even more interesting than the statistics. And, they have something to say about Newtown and about gun control.

One theme Pinker touches on is self-control. Have you heard of Walter Mischel’s marshmallow experiment with kids? Young kids grappled with the choice – to take one marshmallow now, or to get two if you can wait a bit? Pinker perfectly describes the accelerating discount rate that we apply to near-term gratification vs. long-term: how much more is a bird in the hand worth than two in the bush?

The answer is, it partly depends on how “in the hand” the bird is. Faced with a two-for-one tradeoff at two points in the distant future, we have no trouble – imagine choosing between two investments, one with a 10% payoff in a year, another with a 100% payoff in two years.

Self-Will and the Proximity of Temptation

The problem comes when that 10% payoff is right here, right now. Deciding whether you should have a grilled chicken salad or a Big Mac for lunch tomorrow is pretty easy.  But what about right now?  When you just happen to be standing in front of a Mickey D’s. And it’s lunchtime.

The closer we are to temptation, the weaker our self-will becomes when up against it.  We know not to shop for food when we’re hungry.  AA reminds alcoholics not to hang around bars. We put the candy on the upper shelf where the kids can’t get at it. “Just say no” has proven no match for making condoms available when it comes to halting teen pregnancy.

In short, moral development and ethical behaviors aren’t just a matter of self-will and integrity.  Good behavior is greatly affected by the social milieu – some of which can be designed into the environment.

Gun Control and Self-Will

We give up all kinds of rights in order to not tempt bad behavior. We post speed limits on roads, and enforce them.  We enforce guidelines about additives in food, and advertising guidelines about health. First amendment rights of free speech don’t extend to shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater.

Yet in the gun control debates, the United States is conspicuous by its refusal to recognize this simple fact of moral design – the fact that availability of guns per se is a driver of gun-based violence.

Proponents of gun control insist on framing it as an issue of self-control, pure and simple –it’s psychology, they say. But even advocates of gun control have been co-opted; they generally focus on approaches like background checks, to make sure mentally impaired people can’t acquire guns.

Screening for gun purchasers is not the problem – the problem is ubiquity, pure and simple. The marshmallows guns are lying all around, tempting the unhinged to seek immediate gratification for their fevered fantasies.

Consider: Per capita gun ownership in the US is double that of any other country – the second-highest being Yemen, far behind. We have more guns in the US than we do passenger vehicles. We have 300% more guns per capita in the US than they do in France, Germany or Austria.

The result is as predictable as it is horrific. The rate of death by assault is about 300% higher in the US than in any other OECD country.  Two-thirds of murders in the US are committed with guns. Our gun-related murder rate is second only to narco-war-afflicted Mexico.

The solution does not lie in buyer screening. The problem is that we are awash with guns in the US.

Yet the response of pro-gun forces to mass murders is always the same – to focus on the self-will of the perpetrator, or on greater defenses by potential victims. This is akin to arguing for greater investor education in the face of a Bernie Madoff, less provocative clothing in the case of rape victims, just-say-no lectures in the case of teen pregnancy.

I don’t think we’ll hear anyone arguing that 1st-graders should be armed to protect themselves. And yet, sure enough, some argue that the solution is armed teachers. Enough insanity.

It in no way reduces the moral culpability of wrong-doers for us to focus on removing the source of the temptation. Why torture a kid with marshmallows if you’re trying to teach him self-control? Why allow ourselves to be surrounded by guns if we’re serious about cutting gun violence?

If we want to create a trust-based society, rather than regress to a Hobbesian world of armed camps (and schools), we have got to recognize the critical role that society plays in establishing norms, taboos, ethics, codes of conduct, and moral behavior. What we do is greatly influenced by what’s around us.

We are not born into the world with fully-formed moral codes that can be appealed to as sufficient conditions for ethical behavior. Ethics is a social construct as much as it is innate. The gun control debate needs to move not just toward tightened purchase requirements and limitations by type of weapon, but toward significantly fewer guns, period.

5 replies
  1. Ronald
    Ronald says:

    It took President Obama less than 60 hours to politicize these deaths. Gun-control advocates took the low road within a day; gun-rights advocates knee-jerk reacted shortly thereafter. It took you slightly longer to use their deaths for your own agenda – but still a disgustingly short 72 hours. Those poor kids and teachers are not even buried and they are being used as pawns.

    Enough insanity? Indeed.

  2. Rich Sternhell
    Rich Sternhell says:

    Charlie, I must take issue with Ronald. Terrible events give rise to important discussions. These conversations are happening in a wide variety of forums with viewpoints that range the spectrum from those who would say that nuclear weapons fall within the second amendment to those who would ban all sharp objects. The other part of the discussion ranges from those who would lock up all those with psychiatric diagnoses to those who would provide federal funding for the most minor of neuroses. These are important conversations to have so that we have the possibility of coming to some sort of national consensus. My question specifically aimed at the readers of this forum is: Would someone’s possession of a firearm lead you to trust them more or less?

  3. PMolloy
    PMolloy says:


    in NZ, as in many other countries, we look on in amazement at US gun laws and the incredible effects of them.

    Here in NZ we are not immune from multiple murders – I can think of 4 – but that’s 4 in 60 years, and 3 of those were confined within single family environments. Only one was a public slaying.

    Our Police are not routinely armed. Most Police cars now have a gunsafe in them, but the Police men and women who walk the beat, and who respond to most crime calls, are not personally armed.

    At my mother’s 90th birthday recently, she had a photo taken with 68 of her direct descendants.

    I have done some checking.

    Just one of those 68 (my brother who owns a small farm and vineyard) owns a .22 rifle for shooting rabbits and other vermin.

    I also have a large extended family of brothers-in-law etc. Among those, one owns a pistol which belonged to his father in Mexico. It has never been loaded let alone fired.

    I fired rifles when I did my army service 40 years ago and have never touched a firearm since.

    of course we’re also a country of hunters, and there are thousands of rifles, and a much smaller number of pistols.

    But they have to be locked in gunsafes, with ammunition stored separately.

    And gun owners have to be registered. (we’re looking at tightening up on the laws)

    The way it seems that in the USA anyone can buy the most terrifiying assault weapons and multi-bullet magazines is simply beyond our comprehension

    We feel deeply for your country’s pain over this latest massacre and we sincerely hope you can find a way out of the trap of arming everyone and protecting no-one

    It’s nice to read your newsletters and blogs and see that there are voices of sanity there.


  4. John
    John says:

    Good Question Richard,

    For me personally possession of a fire arm would not affect my level of trust in a person. How they discussed that possession would however. I was speaking with someone last week who was bragging about their recent purchase of 2 AR -15’s and their pending application for a concealed carry permit. Their comment about being prepared to blow the next shooter away leads me to lower my level of trust in their presence during a dangerous encounter.

    This versus the co-worker that has taken training and who speaks very respectfully about and around guns. I would much rather have the later than the former.

    @ Ronald, when is it appropriate to have the discussion? If not now when? When the horror is forgotten and we can be swayed by ideology versus humanity?

    Happy Holidays everyone, whichever holiday you celebrate

  5. Anna
    Anna says:

    Very smart article. I wish politicians would talk as boldly and frankly as this. If I knew that a person owned a gun, I would trust them less.


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