Have you ever had a meeting, or a brain storming session, that involved a lot of coffee and enthusiasm, with everyone throwing out ideas at a breakneck pace, and quickly becoming convinced of their brilliance? I had just such a meeting one morning not too long ago. Everything moved really, really fast, and we were convinced that we’d hit upon a really good idea. Later that evening, everything about the idea that we’d come up with began to fall apart. The next morning, I woke up to an email from one of the meeting’s participants with the subject heading, “Maybe this is why we thought it was such a good idea.” The email had no text, only an attached paper by Emily Pronin and Dan Wegner titled “Manic Thinking: Independent Effects of Thought Speed and Thought Content on Mood”1.
Pronin and Wegner note that the psychiatric illness, mania, is associated with both increased thought speed and elevated mood, along with delusions of grandeur, and the feeling of heightened creativity and inspiration. However, the effect of thought speed has not been studied independent of clinical mania. To explore this relationship, they had college undergrads read out loud a series of emotion-inducing statements (58 in all) in at either a fast or slow pace. The statements, which have been used to manipulate mood for a few decades, start out emotionally neutral, and then become more and more emotionally positive or more and more emotionally negative. The idea is that reading a series of progressively more positive or negative statements will affect the reader’s mood accordingly. The letters in the statements were presented one at a time, either for 40ms per letter (fast thinking condition) or 170 ms per letter (slow thinking). A pilot study indicated that the 40ms per letter reading time was about twice the normal reading speed for college undergrads, with 170 ms being about half the normal speed. The time between statements also varied, with only 320 ms between statements in the fast condition, and 4 seconds between statements in the slow condition.
After reading all 58 statements, participants were asked to answer a series of questions designed to assess their mood, energy level, feelings of power, creativity and inspiration, and “grandiosity or inflated self-esteem,” along with their own perceptions of their speed of thought. Not surprisingly (and confirming that the manipulation was working), participants in the fast thought condition reported faster thought speeds than those in the slower condition. Consistent with the hypothesis that faster thought speeds affected mood and mania-related feelings, participants in the fast thought condition reported being happier, had higher energy levels, experienced greater senses of power and creativity, and higher levels of grandiosity (though self-esteem did not differ between conditions). Furthermore, these effects were independent of the mood manipulation (positive or negative statements). Here is Pronin and Wegner’s graph presenting the effects of slow and fast thinking as a function of the type of sentence (positive or negative; from their Figure 1, p. 810):
So there you have it. Thinking fast produces effects on mood and self-view similar to those of clinical mania. Of course, nothing in these results says that thinking faster doesn’t actually lead to more creativity and inspiration, but my colleague was probably right: the fact that we’d been thinking so fast during our meeting likely had something to do with the fact that we thought what turned out to be a bad idea was so good. I wonder how much of a role coffee played in this. While I don’t know of any research on the effect of caffeine on the speed of thought, it is a stimulant, and the fact that we were drinking it in large amounts (the meeting took place at a local coffee house) couldn’t have helped. The implications are clear, then. It’s important, when you’re dealing with something important, to slow down now and then (and cut off the supply of coffee) in order to be able to objectively evaluate the ideas your producing. Otherwise, you might end up like we did, with hours of work that produce only bad ideas.
1Pronin, E., & Wegner, D. M. (2006). Manic thinking: Independent effects of thought speed and thought content on mood. Psychological Science, 17(9), 807-813.