Why John Wayne always won

It’s gunfight time at the University of Birmingham, where scientists have been investigating how quick people are off the draw.

They’ve discovered that we move faster when we react to something in our environment than when we initiate the action ourselves – in other words, that the cowboy who’s second to shoot moves fastest.

Hollywood movies where the first to draw is the one to get shot inspired the Nobel Laureate Niels Bohr to suggest that the intentional act of drawing and shooting is slower than the act of firing in response.

“We wanted to know if there was evidence for these reactive movements being swifter than the equivalent proactive ones,” said Dr Andrew Welchman of the university‘s School of Psychology.

“So we set up a competition between two people who were challenged to press a row of buttons faster than their opponent. There was no ‘go’ signal so all they had to go by was either their own intention to move or a reaction to their opponent – just like in the gunslinger’s legend.”

The team found that the participants who reacted to their opponent were on average 21 milliseconds faster than those who initiated the movement. However, they weren’t as accurate – they shot wide, in other words.

In any case, because it takes around 200 milliseconds to respond to what the opponent is doing, the 21 milliseconds saving won’t make much difference.

Dr Welchman continued: “Apparently, Bohr tested his theory in toy pistol fights with his colleague, George Gamow. Bohr took the reactive approach and won every time, thus proving himself correct – or at least it looked that way. Actually he was probably just a very good shot.”

The team is now looking into whether there are two different brain processes happening for the two types of action, which could have implications for Parkinson’s disease.