The Science Behind the Shoot-Out (or, Why Good Guys Can't Win)

By Smriti Rao | February 3, 2010 3:39 pm

Gunfight_at_the_OK_Corral_2Picture the classic shoot-out in a Western movie: The good guy and the bad guy face each other, their hands quivering over their gun holsters. The bad guy reaches for his weapon, causing the good guy to react–he whips out his pistol and BAM! The hero triumphs. Physicist Niels Bohr once had a theory on why the good guy always won shoot-outs in Hollywood westerns. It was simple: the bad guy always drew first. That left the good guy to react unthinkingly – and therefore faster. When Bohr tested his hypothesis with toy pistols and colleagues who drew first, he always won [New Scientist].

But new research suggests that Bohr didn’t have it exactly right. In a study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, scientists suggest that people do move faster when they are reacting to what is happening around them–but not fast enough for a heroic gunslinger to save his own life.

Researchers set up an experimental (and bullet-less) duel to study two types of movement, and found that “unplanned actions” were faster than “planned actions.” Pairs of participants were put in a button-pressing competition with each other…. “There was no ‘go’ signal,” said Dr Andrew Welchman from the University of Birmingham, who led the research. “All they had to go by was either their own intention to move or a reaction to their opponent – just like in the gunslingers legend” [BBC]. Welchman found that the subjects who started the sequence of button-pressing first didn’t move as quickly as their partners who were reacting to the action. Those reactive participants pressed their buttons 21 milliseconds faster.

Welchman observed: “If you’re making a cup of tea that would be an intentional decision. If we then knock the cup of tea off the table, the reactive comes into play as we try to catch the cup as fast as possible” [BBC].

But the button-pressing duel also revealed that the reactive party was critically delayed. A “reaction time” of 200 milliseconds elapsed between the moment the first player hit a button and when the second player began to move, which meant that the reactive player never won the duel. Welchman notes that the same reaction time would slow down a cowboy, so in a gunfight, the 21 millisecond reactionary advantage would be unlikely to save you [BBC].

The researchers plan to investigate whether there are two different brain processes for “planned actions” and “reactive actions.” They hope future findings will help patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease, who have greater trouble with intentional movements like picking up a ball on the table, as opposed to catching it when thrown at them. This might be evidence that particular areas of the brain affected by Parkinson’s contribute more to intentional actions than reactive ones. If this turns out to be the case, then it may also be possible to develop some strategies to ease movement in such patients [University of Birmingham].

Related Content:
80beats: Boosting a Brain Wave Makes People Move Slow—and Bad at Video Games
80beats: Taming Parkinson’s With Electric Pulses Through the Spine
80beats: Google Founder Tries to Crack Parkinson’s Genetic Code With Crowdsourcing
80beats: For Treating Parkinson’s, A “Brain Pacemaker” Beats Out Medication

Image: Wikipedia/ James G. Howes

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Mind & Brain
  • nick

    I wonder if Zen and it’s empty-mind goal of meditation could help Parkinson’s folk.

  • Nathan

    ummm, also, I think really it was supposed to serve as a testament to the overall quicker reaction time, and just general greater awesomeness of the “good guy” Not that the action the other gunslinger took prior had any bearing advantageous or otherwise. I can also say that what really makes you fast is “muscle-memory” or practicing until you have hardwired a reponse to a given stimulus to your spinal cord, thus enabling your body to react without having to consult the brain.

  • Mikey G

    When playing football, if I thought about Catching the pass I would drop it, If I let my mind go blank, I never dropped it…..
    Needless to say I experimented with these thoughts in practice. I’ve never dropped a pass in a game.

  • YouRang

    So maybe the good guys win because they’re smart enough to recognize the tell of the other guy and the bad guys aren’t (which is also why the bad guys think the good guys are cheating at poker).

  • derek

    This may be why the routine plays in sports always seemed harder to make. In baseball a routine groundball was always harder for me to field than a ball that I had to make a hard play on. In the routine plays you have too much time to analyze the situation, but the harder-to-make plays your playing based on reactions.

  • muadib

    The same concept applies to various aspects of other sports as well. Golf, ping-pong, archery. I seem to always do better when ridding myself of thoughts and just DOING.

  • Nathan

    Yep. Like I said, think its more to do with the individual’s self-trained, or taught, responses, than with the fact that they are ‘reacting’ . If that’s true, the good guy could’ve drawn first and still won, if he’d trained himself to do that, instead of keying off of the badguy

  • Ian McGillivray

    Pressing a button is a much shorter action than drawing a gun and firing, so it might be possible that the increased quickness caused by a reflex action in comparison to an intentional action would be amplified by the increased motion time, causing the reflexive shooter to get his shot off first most times. just a thought.

  • Cory

    Gunshots are more about well-calibrated reflex and steadiness of hand than direct reaction time, really. Literally “firing from the hip” with a six-shooter isn’t going to be an easy hit for anyone.

  • Jay Fox

    I learned this with a shotgun on the sporting clays course. If I shouldered the gun and then called for the bird, often as not I’d miss. If I just kept the gun down “at the ready” and then called, and had to shoulder, aim, and fire, well, it happens too fast to think. You just do it, and hit most of ’em.

  • Dave

    Yeah gotta side with Cory on this one. It’s pretty common knowledge that in shootouts, the guy that takes better aim is the one that hits. Maybe that’s why good guys win. Not only do they have a better look out on life, but they have better aim. Watch Gunsmoke, they always show Matt Dillion shooting second but he actually hits.

    And I don’t quite see how talking about gunfights dumbs down science… Science just tries to prove whatever it can.

  • YouRang

    It occurs to me that the ability to find a tell in the opponent ought to work to the advantage of at least some bad guys. I’m pretty sure that manipulative people have exceptional ability to find tells in other people. The at least is the premise of the show about the partly reformed bad guy “The Mentalist”.

  • Monica

    Hello there. I read the document and also believe the advice you’ve provided is great and it also will be a waste to not let you know. Best wishes, Samuel


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