Quicker on the Draw

February 6, 2010

If you have ever watched any Westerns or cop shows on TV or at the movies, you have probably observed that, commonly, the bad guys draw their guns first, but nearly always end up getting shot by the good guys, who would seem to be at a disadvantage from drawing second.  The apparent paradox puzzled no less a scientist than Niels Bohr, winner of the Nobel Prize in physics in 1922.  He hypothesized that the brain reacted faster to danger than it was able to carry out a conscious intention, and went so far as to arrange some mock duels with a colleague to test his idea:

Legend has it that he procured two toy pistols and enlisted the aid of fellow physicist George Gamow. In a series of duels, Bohr never drew first but won every time.

Now, according to an article at ScienceNOW, a group of researchers, led by Andrew Welchman at the University of Bristol in the UK, has carried out some experiments that appear to validate Bohr’s hypothesis.  In a paper [abstract + PDF] published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, they report that experimental subjects reacting to moves by an opponent performed about 10% faster than they did on moved initiated by themselves.

We placed pairs of participants in competition with each other to make a series of button presses. Within-subject analysis of movement times revealed a 10 per cent benefit for reactive actions.

However, they also observed that the faster reaction came at a price: those reacting to an opponents moves were more likely to make a mistake in their response.

Still, it seems plausible that reacting to danger quickly, even at the cost of a slightly sub-optimal response, was an advantage from an evolutionary point of view.  The researchers feel that further investigation of this phenomenon  may help in understanding how the brain and body work to coordinate movements:

“We’re doing a lot of work trying to understand how we time and produce our movements and working with patients who’ve had some kind of motor impairment through, for instance, a stroke,” says Welchman.

However, the results the team obtained don’t really explain the Hollywood phenomenon that Bohr questioned.  Although the reacting players moved more quickly that the initial actors, the increase in speed was not enough to make up for the initial delay in response.  It appears something more fundamental may have been at work.

So how do the researchers explain Bohr’s repeated triumphs over Gamow? “Our data make it unlikely that these victories can be ascribed to the benefits associated with reaction,” the team concludes. “Rather, they suggest that Bohr was a crack shot, in addition to being a brilliant physicist.”

All in all, the Manhattan Project must have been a pretty interesting place to work, with colleagues like Richard  Feynman, the genius safecracker, and Niels Bohr, the gunslinger.

Update, Sunday, February 7, 16:35

The New Scientist also has an entertaining article on this research.

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