Thinking Fast Equals Risky Business

Connections between the speed of thought and feelings of euphoria have been reported in cases of clinical mania. New research now links racing thoughts with risk-taking among the general population.

The speed of modern life has increased dramatically in recent decades, and faster is almost always better. But, is that true when it comes to your own thoughts? In two experiments, reported in Psychological Science, scientists manipulated participants’ thought speeds and assessed their appetites for risk. In the first experiment, three dozen students read aloud at different speeds — twice their normal speed or half their normal speed. Then, each student played a computer-simulated game that required them to blow air into a balloon without popping it. Students were rewarded with five cents each time he or she pumped air into the balloon, but lost money each time the balloon popped. The students who had read quickly were more willing to take risks with the balloon (and the money), attempting and achieving more pumps, but also popping more balloons than the students who had read slowly.

In a second experiment, 52 students watched fast-, medium-, or slow-paced movie clips that contained similar content. The students who watched the fast-paced clips reported a greater intention to engage in real-world risky behaviors, including unprotected sex and illegal drug use. Those students were also more likely to minimize the danger associated with each risky behavior.

Previous studies have shown a link between life in the fast-thinking lane and mood. Experimentally accelerated thought is achieved through instructions to brainstorm freely, exposure to multiple ideas, encouragement to plagiarize others’ ideas, performance of easy cognitive tasks, narration of a silent video in fast-forward, and controlled reading speed. Regardless of the types of thoughts that were induced (money-making schemes, word choice, or feelings of depression or elation), individuals demonstrated an increased positive affect after thinking quickly. Increased speed of thought also amplified feelings of power, creativity, and energy, and inflated self-esteem.

Researchers attribute these findings to the subjective experience of thought speed and the joy-enhancing effects of fast thinking. Likewise, thinking slowly is, apparently, a killjoy.

The need for speed is undeniable today’s fast and furious world. But, at what cost? Are we riskier because we are always thinking faster? Or are we happier? Will letting the brain stop and smell the roses decrease our desire to take risks, or will we just become depressed? Human thought is the product of an integrated, sophisticated network that involves neurons, sensory input, and the brain. Speed is fundamental to the thought process, but it is not the only determinant of effectiveness. Efficiency, timing, and appropriateness must be balanced with speed to keep us safe and running smoothly in whatever lane of life’s highway we choose.


Chandler JJ, & Pronin E (2012). Fast thought speed induces risk taking. Psychological science, 23 (4), 370-4 PMID: 22395129

Pronin E, Jacobs E, & Wegner DM (2008). Psychological effects of thought acceleration. Emotion (Washington, D.C.), 8 (5), 597-612 PMID: 18837610

Pronin E, & Wegner DM (2006). Manic thinking: independent effects of thought speed and thought content on mood. Psychological science, 17 (9), 807-13 PMID: 16984299

Image via fotomak / Shutterstock.

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD, is a practicing clinical pharmacist and medical writer/editor with experience in researching and preparing scientific publications, developing public relations materials, creating educational resources and presentations, and editing technical manuscripts. She is the owner of Excalibur Scientific, LLC.
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