Science investigates the 'Think Fast Principle'

Illustration for article titled Science investigates the 'Think Fast Principle'

As if anyone needed more proof that scientists are trying to screw with us. A group of researchers fired balls out of a cannon at people, just to see what they would do about it.


Think before you volunteer for a scientific experiment. Science has locked people in prison. Science has made people think they committed murder. Science has run a brothel and hired hookers to dose people with LSD. And now science is investigating the 'ball catching' reflexes of a bunch of poor saps who probably didn't even get paid for it.

Over at Uppsala University in Sweden, they decided that they needed to check if learned responses could be brought to bear in unexpected situations. People might be able to respond to things they've been trained to do under expected circumstances, and they might be able to respond to sudden trials with practiced skills, if they had been trained to use those skills in an emergency. But could someone who knew a basic skill well react to a sudden stimulus by using that skill?

Figuring that most people had been trained to catch a ball, they grabbed some balls and prepared to launch them and the next poor sucker who walked through the door. The balls were either thrown at the subject by the person conducting the experiment, who probably had some explaining to do afterwards, or were fired suddenly from a hidden cannon, which likely took even more of an explanation. The experimenters said that the people being fired upon were 'unwitting participants.' There is no way to overemphasize how unsettling that description is.

It does, however, explain the results. Most people, it seemed, moved their hands in a defensive way, rather than attempting the catch the sudden unidentified projectiles launched at them. Although responses were quicker when people realized that they were being fired at by a cannon, fewer 'cannonized' (I had to say it) people made any move to catch the ball. In fact, only one person caught the ball from the cannon. Analysis of high speed camera footage of the event, which, despite everything, I'd like to see, indicated that that person would not have had time to identify the motion of the ball, and so probably made the catch on instinct. More people caught the thrown ball. Researchers attributed this to the fact that the people saw the experiment conductor's movements before the ball was launched and anticipated the event.

Overall, they found that people who had spent a significant amount of time catching balls made smaller, less wild, arm movements whether they caught the ball or not. This indicated to them that catching a ball might be a skill that can be brought out in people in an emergency, even though those people can't always successfully play catch with a cannon.

What the experiment taught the researchers about themselves can be examined at a later date.


Via Discover and PubMed.