Choosing when to think fast & when to think slow

I recently read an interesting article in the Smithsonian about procrastination and why it’s good for you. Frank Partnoy, author of a new book on the subject, pointed out that procrastination only began to be regarded as a bad thing by the Puritans — earlier (among the Greeks and Romans, for example), it was regarded more as a sign of wisdom.

The examples given about the perils of deciding too quickly made me think about the assumed connection between intelligence and processing speed. We equate intelligence with quick thinking, and time to get the correct answer is part of many tests. So, regardless of the excellence of a person’s cognitive product, the time it takes for them to produce it is vital (in test).

Similarly, one of the main aspects of cognition impacted by age is processing speed, and one of the principal reasons for people to feel that they are ‘losing it’ is because their thinking is becoming noticeably slower.

But here’s the question: does it matter?

Certainly in a life-or-death, climb-the-tree-fast-or-be-eaten scenario, speed is critical. But in today’s world, the major reason for emphasizing speed is the pace of life. Too much to do and not enough time to do it in. So, naturally, we want to do everything fast.

There is certainly a place for thinking fast. I recently looked through a short book entitled “Speed Thinking” by Ken Huds. The author’s strategy for speed thinking was basically to give yourself a very brief window — 2 minutes — in which to come up with 9 thoughts (the nature of those thoughts depends on the task before you — I’m just generalizing the strategy here). The essential elements are the tight time limit and the lack of a content limit — to accomplish this feat of 9 relevant thoughts in 2 minutes, you need to lose your inner censor and accept any idea that occurs to you.

If you’ve been reading my last couple of posts on flow, it won’t surprise you that this strategy is one likely to produce that state of consciousness (at least, once you’re in the way of it).

So, I certainly think there’s a place for fast thinking. Short bouts like this can re-energize you and direct your focus. But life is a marathon, not a sprint, and of course we can’t maintain such a pace or level of concentration. Nor should we want to, because sometimes it’s better to let things simmer. But how do we decide when it’s best to think fast or best to think slow? (shades of Daniel Kahneman’s wonderful book Thinking, Fast and Slow here!)

In the same way that achieving flow depends on the match between your skill and the task demands, the best speed for processing depends on your level of expertise, the demands of the task, and the demands of the situation.

For example, Sian Beilock (whose work on math anxiety I have reported on) led a study that demonstrated that, while novice golfers putted better when they could concentrate step-by-step on the accuracy of their performance, experts did better when their attention was split between two tasks and when they were focused on speed rather than accuracy.

Another example comes from a monkey study that has just been in the news. In this study, rhesus macaques were trained to reach out to a target. To do so, their brains needed to know three things: where their hand is, where the target is, and the path for the hand to travel to reach the target. If there’s a direct path from the hand to the target, the calculation is simple. But in the experiment, an obstacle would often block the direct path to the target. In such cases, the calculation becomes a little bit more complicated.

And now we come to the interesting bit: two monkeys participated. As it turns out, one was hyperactive, the other more controlled. The hyperactive monkey would quickly reach out as soon as the target appeared, without waiting to see if an obstacle blocked the direct path. If an obstacle did indeed appear in the path (which it did on 2/3 trials), he had to correct his movement in mid-reach. The more self-controlled monkey, however, waited a little longer, to see where the obstacle appeared, then moved smoothly to the target. The hyperactive monkey had a speed advantage when the way was clear, but the other monkey had the advantage when the target was blocked.

So perhaps we should start thinking of processing speed as a personality, rather than cognitive, variable!

[An aside: it’s worth noting that the discovery that the two monkeys had different strategies, undergirded by different neural activity, only came about because the researcher was baffled by the inconsistencies in the data he was analyzing. As I’ve said before, our focus on group data often conceals many fascinating individual differences.]

The Beilock study indicates that the ‘correct’ speed — for thinking, for decision-making, for solving problems, for creating — will vary as a function of expertise and attentional demands (are you trying to do two things at once? Is something in your environment or your own thoughts distracting you?). In which regard, I want to mention another article I recently read — a blog post on EdWeek, on procedural fluency in math learning. That post referenced an article on timed tests and math anxiety (which I’m afraid is only available if you’re registered on the EdWeek site). This article makes the excellent point that timed tests are a major factor in developing math anxiety in young children. Which is a point I think we can generalize.

Thinking fast, for short periods of time, can produce effective results, and the rewarding mental state of flow. Being forced to try and think fast, when you lack the necessary skills, is stressful and non-productive. If you want to practice thinking fast, stick with skills or topics that you know well. If you want to think fast in areas in which you lack sufficient expertise, work on slowly and steadily building up that expertise first.


This is indeed a good article about practising how to think fast

This is indeed a good article about practising how to think fast. There is always a good old saying “slow and steady wins the race”. It might not be practical in our fast moving society but definitely essential in the long marathon of life.

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