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Study finds fast thinking leads to risk taking

Everybody has been forced to make decisions under hurried conditions, whether racing through a five page final exam in an hour or being pushed into a last-minute sale. A new study, “Thought Speed Induces Risk Taking,” to appear in a not-yet-published issue of Psychological Science, investigates the way that thinking quickly affects the outcome of various decisions.

It is known that conditions ranging from mania to cocaine abuse lead to both increased speed of thought and risk taking, but the researchers sought to establish whether one causes the other. To investigate this, they conducted two experiments in which they slowed or sped up participants’ thought pattern and then tested their tendencies to take risks.

In the rst experiment, the participants were assigned to read trivia facts out loud at either half of the normal reading speed or twice the normal speed. The trivia were neutral facts such as "a pilot light continually remains lit in a gas stove," and the only factor that changed was the speed. This is a standard method for calming or accelerating thought patterns.

The participants then completed the "Balloon Analogue Risk Task," in which they in- ate simulated balloons on a computer. For each click/pump, a small amount of money was placed in a bank, but if they accidentally overrated and caused the balloon to pop, the money was lost. The participants actually received the money that they won, so there was motivation to ll the balloons as much as possible without causing them to break.

The participants whose thoughts had been accelerated by forced speed reading put an average of 25 percent more pumps into each balloon and popped several more than those who were thinking slowly and rationally. The quick-thinking participants took greater risks despite the fact that they were not being rushed during the balloon task. This has real-world implications since the balloon task has been shown in previous studies to be a good indicator of actual risk taking, such as unprotected sex and illegal drug use.

In the second experiment, participants watched videos that were either paced quickly like a typical pop-music video or contained slow cuts such as a standard Hollywood movie. In either case, the videos contained clips of neutral scenes, including waterfalls, iguanas and urban landscapes; the only changing factor was the frequency of scene changes and camera cuts.

After watching the videos, the participants were asked about their thoughts on risky behaviors such as vandalism, drinking games, drug use, unprotected sex and procrastinating on work assignments. Specifically, the researchers asked how likely the participants were to engage in these behaviors over the next six months. Although the expected outcomes of these behaviors were the same between the fast and slow think- ers, the fast thinkers were much more likely to anticipate actually engaging in these dangerous, real-world activities.

The researchers confirmed that fast-paced thinking, whether induced by speed-reading or hurried movies, leads to taking greater risks with money and willingness to participate in other risky behaviors. From these results, the researchers draw a variety of implications ranging from better treatment of mania to understanding military decisions made on the y.