Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics

, Volume 75, Issue 8, pp 1715-1724

First online:

Armed and attentive: Holding a weapon can bias attentional priorities in scene viewing

  • Adam T. BiggsAffiliated withDepartment of Psychology & Neuroscience, Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, Duke University Email author 
  • , James R. BrockmoleAffiliated withUniversity of Notre Dame
  • , Jessica K. WittAffiliated withColorado State University


The action-specific perception hypothesis (Witt, Current Directions in Psychological Science 20: 201–206, 2011) claims that the environment is represented with respect to potential interactions for objects present within said environment. This investigation sought to extend the hypothesis beyond perceptual mechanisms and assess whether action-specific potential could alter attentional allocation. To do so, we examined a well-replicated attention bias in the weapon focus effect (Loftus, Loftus, & Messo, Law and Human Behaviour 1, 55–62, 1987), which represents the tendency for observers to attend more to weapons than to neutral objects. Our key manipulation altered the anticipated action-specific potential of observers by providing them a firearm while they freely viewed scenes with and without weapons present. We replicated the original weapon focus effect using modern eye tracking and confirmed that the increase in time looking at weapons comes at a cost of less time spent looking at faces. Additionally, observers who held firearms while viewing the various scenes showed a general bias to look at faces over objects, but only if the firearm was in a readily usable position (i.e., pointed at the scenes rather than holstered at one’s side). These two effects, weapon focus and the newly found bias to look more at faces when armed, canceled out one another without interacting. This evidence confirms that the action capabilities of the observer alter more than just perceptual mechanisms and that holding a weapon can change attentional priorities. Theoretical and real-world implications are discussed.


Attention Cognitive and attentional control Eye movements and visual attention