Saturday, December 09, 2006

Speed of Thought

Is the speed of thought a constant or a variable?

A phrase like "something at the speed of thought" only makes sense if you think that the speed of thought is a constant. (Like the speed of light.) Bill Gates wrote a book called Business at the Speed of Thought. But as he is both extremely clever and extremely rich, then maybe his brain and his bank account are in perfect synch.

Intelligence doesn't always mean thinking faster than everyone else. In Einstein's case, it apparently meant thinking more slowly and deeply than everyone else. But then he never had a software company to run.

Recent research suggests that the speed of thought is in fact a variable. Happier people think quickly; miserable people think slowly [Note 1].

Some people (ScienceBlogs, Dilbert) have interpreted this result as implying you can become happier by thinking more quickly. The reason for fast thinking is its positive effect on your mood.

Now you might think that this makes a questionable assumption about cause and effect. What if it is the other way around - a miserable mood causing someone to think more slowly? Then surely it doesn't make sense to tell people to think more quickly. That's like asking someone to fix the effect rather than the cause.

But of course trying to fix the effect rather than the cause is something people do all the time. And it's especially easy if you are merely providing advice to other people - because it's not your fault if they fail to take your advice. "If some miserable person is too pigheaded to take my advice and think more quickly, it just serves them right if they stay miserable."

The advice-giver (and the politician for that matter) doesn't need to work out which is cause and which is effect - let alone worry about so-called root causes - merely issue optimistic policies with a suitable fail-sake clause. If it doesn't work, it's someone else's fault.

Bill Gates seems happy enough. But then he's not a politician. At least not that kind. Yet.

Note 1: Pronin, E., & Wegner, D.M. (2006). Manic thinking: Independent effects of thought speed and thought content on mood. Psychological Science, 17(9), 807-813.

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Dave Munger said...


Psychologists already knew that slower thought was associated with depression. The Pronin and Wegner article we report on shows a causal relationship between thought speed (actually, a proxy: reading speed) and positive mood. So your guess that the results could be explained by the reverse: that negative mood might cause slower thinking, doesn't really apply here.

That said, it's certainly possible that *both* things occur: negative mood causes slow thinking and slow thinking causes negative mood.

Richard Veryard said...

Thanks for your comment Dave.

The experiment appears to show that subjects who are capable of variation in reading speed experience some corresponding variation in mood. This could be explained by an existing mental association between slow thinking and negative mood, but we may still be uncertain about the direction of causality. Once a mental association is established, it may trigger an effect in either direction. So you may get exactly the situation you describe - negative mood reinforces slow thinking and slow thinking reinforces negative mood.

What the experiment doesn't tell us is how to treat people who are stuck in a slow-thinking-negative-mood loop. Even if something works with normal subjects in experimental conditions, this doesn't mean it's going to work with difficult subjects in clinical conditions.