Think Fast to Stay ‘Up’

177039343You wake up. Your phone blinks. You touch the screen, slide your finger, and chills shiver down your spine. “See me tomorrow,” says the email your boss sent at midnight. Your thoughts accelerate. “What does she want? Why did she write so late? Am I in trouble? The company is in trouble. This down economy! I’m getting fired. Why me? Where will I work? I have skills. There are other companies. I have no skills. Where will I apply? Can we move? How will the kids react to changing schools? I can do this. We can do this. No matter what.”

We think. It helps us. Errands, plans, and goals require thought. Synapses fire. Action potentials race down axons. Chemicals bathe our brains with neurotransmitters. Thoughts guide action, from ordering a coffee to avoiding predators. What we think matters. But according to Emily Pronin of Princeton University, how fast we think matters, too.

Making people think fast boosts their happiness, energy, riskiness, and self-confidence. In an impressive program of research, Pronin and colleagues have documented these effects using many ways to speed up thinking. In one study, participants read trivia statements at fast or slow speeds. Next, they completed a risk-taking task. Participants could earn money — but only if they didn’t take too many risks. Fast-thinking participants took the most risks and earned the least money. On the bright side, having people read at twice their normal reading speed increased their positive emotion.

Pronin argues that fast thinking prepares people to take immediate action. Feeling good nudges that process along, as does increased energy. If you spy a moose while running on a trail, it will behoove you to take swift and confident action even if it involves some risk. You may even experience an “a-ha” moment that provides a creative solution you would not have considered if you were thinking at a normal or slow pace.

A racing mind is often an unquiet, manic mind, to reference clinical psychologists Kay Redfield Jamison, who has written extensively about her own struggle with bipolar disorder. But thinking fast can bring tremendous benefits. It prompts people to pounce rather than ponder, to act rather than react, and to brim with confidence rather than with reticence. By thinking fast, we have the confidence to bob our heads in the boss’s door upon entering the office and ask, “You said you wanted to see me?” “Yes, I just learned that we’re promoting you,” she says. “Congratulations!” Fast thinking can be frightening, but it also feels good.

This is excerpted from an article written by psychological researchers C. Nathan DeWall, University of Kentucky, and David G. Myers, Hope College, and published in the latest issue of Observer, the magazine of the Association for Psychological Science

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