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Counterattacks are quicker


Renowned Danish physicist and Nobel laureate, Niels Bohr, is obsessed with the gunfights in western films. He wondered why the cowboy who pulled the gun first always lost the gunfight, so he proposed a study to find out why this occurred. He and his colleagues at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom conducted a study of the phenomena in which they used pressure pads instead of guns to measure reaction times. The results showed that reacting to an opponent’s actions produced quicker reaction times than when a subject initiated the action.

The study

The study showed that people can react to environmental stimuli more quickly than when they initiate the stimuli; however, this quicker reaction is at the cost of greater error. When speed is desirable, the faster you perform the less accurate your reaction will be. In a gunfight, speed is critical when drawing your weapon, but you only must be accurate enough to get the gun into a shooting position; precision accuracy is not as important as getting the first shot at the opponent.

The study placed pairs of participants in competition with each other to make a series of button presses. The study controlled for social aspects (the findings remained the same when the opponent was a computer), the type of movement (quicker movements were still present when the buttons were arranged differently), and when there were no movement cues (computers do move). The difference in speed, while small (20ms), it calculates to a 10 percent quicker reaction time, which, in a self-defense situation, may mean the difference between your life or death.

The researchers suggest that different neural pathways govern these two types of movement initiation. Reactive actions take a different neural route in the brain than intentionally driven actions, and the research shows that the route is faster for reactive actions. It appears that, under pressure, less conscious involvement is desirable; it is better to react instinctively.


Being 10 percent quicker in reaction than in action may explain the success of counter fighters who wait for the opponent to attack and then either counterattack before the attack is completed, or block or evade the attack and then counterattack. Counter attackers do not waste time and energy consciously trying to formulate attacks, they just relax, wait for the opponent to move, and then they attack with a flurry of instinctive counterattacks. The accuracy and precision of the counterattacks may not be perfect, but that is not as important as being the first one to connect with an attack.


Welchman, A.; Stanley, J.; Schomers, M.; Miall, R.; and Bulthoff, H. (2010). The quick and the dead: when reaction beats intention. The Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

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