New Scientist this week carried a playful article on just this (very pressing) question. Niels Bohr (yes, the Neils Bohr) once hypothesised that the reason that the Good Guy is so often left standing is because his opponent draws first? Confused? Bohr’s explanation was that in reacting to an opponent’s move, the Good guy acts unthinkingly, and thereby faster than his adversary. To test his theory, he employed that most scientific of instruments – a set of toy pistols, and practiced with his colleagues. When his opponent drew first, Bohr – or so the story goes – invariably won.
Andrew Welchman, a researcher at the University of Birmingham, decided to put this theory to the test. He devised an experiment: two players put their hand on a button. When one person ‘draws’, the aim is to raise one’s hand, touch two further buttons, and then return to the starting position. It is reported that the results of the experiment show the reacting player was indeed quicker than the initiator, by a whole 21 milliseconds, suggesting high-speed reactive processing. Unfortunately, however, their reaction-times meant that they couldn’t exploit their advantage: it took them approximately 200 milliseconds to respond. That 180 millisecond difference is no doubt time enough to catch a well-aimed bullet.
Furthermore, Welchman noted that ‘reactive’ players were typically less accurate at hitting their targets than those who initiated the actions. Inaccuracy is, one would presume, not a virtue in such situations.
So, what conclusions can we draw from this? Well, while it does seem to be the case that reactive action employs faster processing routes through the brain than self-initiated action, which may be of interest for those who deal in Action theory. On the other hand it seems that Bohr got it wrong: alas, we can’t all be John Wayne just by waiting for our opponent to go for her gun first. As for Bohr’s legendary performance in his ‘experiments’? Well, the answer, as noted by Welchman, is simple: Bohr was clearly the fastest gun-slinging Nobel prize-winner in the West…
The Phenomenology of Agency
By Tim Bayne, University of Oxford
(Vol.3, January 2008)