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Why cowboy Clint Eastwood always won his shoot-outs

The reason why Western gunslingers such as Clint Eastwood and John Wayne always won their shoot-outs was because reaction is faster than action, scientists have claimed.

7:30AM GMT 03 Feb 2010

The researchers found that reflex was always faster than conscious action which is why - in theory at least - the hero should wait for his rival to go for his gun.

In a series of experiments involving a button pressing game amongst 54 participants researchers found people moved fastest when reacting to their opponent rather than initiating the same movement.

Psychologist Dr Andrew Welchman said the phenomenon may even be an evolutionary development to help the survival of humans.

His team placed male and female volunteers aged 18 to 39 in pairs to compete against each other and they took it in turns to initiate the movement by holding down the central of three buttons.

In these "laboratory gunfights" there was a 10 percent benfit of reactive actions even when participants competed against a computer - suggesting the effect is not related to action observation.

Dr Welchman, of Birmingham University, said: "We showed that pressing the three buttons was slightly quicker when players were reacting to a move rather than instigating it.

"There is good evidence from imaging scans that our brain system uses different messaging routes depending on intentional and reactive movements but this is the first time the two speeds of thought have been calculated."

Nobel Prize-winning physicist Niels Bohr, who died in 1962 aged 77, first suggested the intentional act of drawing and shooting is slower to execute than the reactive response after being inspired by movie gunfights.

He once did an impromptu research project to find out why good guys in movies always win quick draw duels.

After many mock gunfights in university hallways with graduate students, Bohr concluded the villain always tries to draw his gun first, and so must consciously move his hands), while the hero always reacts and draws by reflex as soon as he sees the villain moving.

Dr Welchman said it would be "stretching it" to say they have proved Hollywood right because drawing first would give a gunman a headstart that would be difficult to overcome.

He said: "As a general survival strategy, the evolution of a movement system capable of producing quick movements that support faster responses to the environment seems reasonable. It helps us to get out of the way of danger as quickly as possible.

"However, within the context of a gunfight, a strategy based purely on reaction seems unlikely to increase evolutionary fitness as the advantage produced by reacting is far outweighed by the time taken to react to the opponent.

"Anecdotal reports suggest that Bohr tested his original idea with colleague George Gamow using toy pistols, with the 'reactive' Bohr apparently winning every duel.

"Our data make it unlikely that these victories can be ascribed to the benefits associated with reaction. Rather, they suggest that Bohr was a crack shot, in addition to being a brilliant physicist."

Dr Welchman said his findings, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, could help Parkinson's disease sufferers who are particularly compromised in speed when making intentional rather than reactive arm movemnets.

He said: "Testing Parkinson's patients with our paradigm would be of interest as concerns about high-level speed-accuracy decisions, or strategies for different experimental conditions could be ruled out."

 
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