The great Niels Bohr, the Nobel laureate and quantum physicist, was apparently a big fan of Hollywood westerns. More often than not, in these movies bad guys get shot in a gunfight even though they’re always the ones who reached for their guns first.
Niels Bohr was so intrigued with the puzzle that he came up with a theory: the one who draws second moves faster because he reacts without thinking.
Drawing a gun, taking aim and shooting first, bad guy is inevitably forcing the opponent to act reactively, instinctively, without thinking, and such reactive action is faster than a conscious, thoughtful action.
Bohr tested his theory by staging his own mock duels with toy guns at his institute in Copenhagen. His gunslinging partner, the Russian-born theoretical physicist and cosmologist George Gamow, played a bad guy, drew first and lost every time.
Does it prove Bohr’s theory?
“[Bohr] can’t have won because he was quicker in reacting,” says British professor and experimental psychologist Andrew Welchman. “It must be that he was a really good shot as well as a really good physicist.”
Niels Bohr’s theory was right but only to the point Birmingham University researchers concluded. After all, Bohr was no neurophysiologist. This conclusion makes the scientist from experiments conducted recently.
The researchers simulated gunfights by sitting volunteers opposite each other and asking them to hit a sequence of buttons as soon as the other person moved. They then looked at which was faster overall: initiating the “gunfight” or reacting.
“In our everyday lives, some of the movements we make come about because we decide to make them, while others are forced on us by reacting to events. Bohr’s suggestion reflects this everyday intuition. We wanted to know if there was evidence for these reactive movements being swifter than the equivalent proactive ones,” Welchman said.
Welchman’s study found that while a gunslinger moved faster when they drew second, the difference was on average only 21 milliseconds – too slow to beat someone who had already pulled a gun.
“You move faster if you draw second, but you’re still going to die,” Dr Welchman said. “You’ll die satisfied that you were quicker, but that’s not much use to you.”
“As a general strategy for survival, having this system in our brains that gives us quick-and-dirty responses to the environment seems pretty useful. It probably wouldn’t save you in a Wild West duel because your brain takes around 200 milliseconds to respond to what your opponent is doing, but it could mean the difference between life and death when you are trying to avoid an oncoming bus,” Welchman said.
There is a good evolutionary explanation for the increased speed of reactive action: The brain circuitry has evolved in such a way that to give our ancestors potentially lifesaving precious seconds when encountered with a sudden danger.