Monday, August 19, 2013

Thinking fast promotes risky behavior

The school year is about to start, and the University of Texas is about to be flooded with students.  Every year, a few of those students end up doing silly things.  The campus police blotter is filled with stories of strange risks large and small that students engage in.

There are many factors that can promote this kind of risk taking.  An interesting paper in the April, 2012 issue of Psychological Science by Jesse Chandler and Emily Pronin suggests that someone’s speed of thinking might be one of them.

Quite a bit of work (much of it by Emily Pronin) has explored influences of fast thinking on behavior.  For example, fast thinking can improve your mood.

In one study in this paper, participants were asked to read a number of trivia statements.  Some people (the fast thinkers) were asked to read at about twice their normal reading speed, while others (the slow thinkers) were asked to read about half of their normal reading speed.  Consistent with previous work, the fast thinkers reported that they were in a better mood after reading than the slow thinkers.

After reading, everyone was asked to perform the Balloon Analog Risk Task (BART).  In the BART, people see a balloon on a computer screen.  They can inflate the balloon a bit more with each press of a button on the keyboard.  Each time they inflate the balloon a bit more, they get 5-cents.  When they stop pumping up the balloon, they can keep whatever they earn.  However, if the balloon pops, they lose the money they have accumulated.  Participants are not given any information about how many pumps they can make on a given balloon before it will pop.  This task has been used in many previous studies to measure how much risk someone is willing to take.

In this study, the fast thinkers pumped the balloon more often than the slow thinkers, indicating that they were willing to take on risk.  On the positive side, this risky behavior allows these participants to make more money on each balloon that they did not pop.  On the negative side, they also popped more balloons than the slow thinkers.

A second study examined college student’s willingness to engage in real-world risky behaviors.  In this study, the fast thinkers watched a movie in which the scene changed every ¾ of a second.  The medium thinkers watched a movie in which the scene changed every second and a half.  The slow thinkers saw a movie whose scenes changed every 3 seconds.  The shots in the film were all nature scenes that were matched for content across the three versions of the film.

After watching the films, participants filled out a survey in which they rated how likely they were to engage in a variety of behaviors including things like playing drinking games, having unprotected sex, and damaging public property.  They also rated how likely these behaviors were to get them in trouble.

The fast thinkers rated themselves as more likely to engage in risky behavior in the future than the slow thinkers (with the medium thinkers coming out in between).  The fast thinkers also thought that the risky behaviors were less likely to get them in trouble than the slow thinkers.  So, fast thinking influences risk in part by decreasing how risky people see these behaviors to be.

What does this mean?

This work suggests that if you find yourself in a situation where you face some risk, it is probably a good idea to slow down. Counting to 10 before you go ahead and do something risky is not a bad idea.  It may help you to be more effective at deciding how dangerous an activity might be.

Of course, if you are the sort of person who never engages in anything risky, and you want to take more risks than you do now, then this work suggests you can do that by speeding up your thinking.  A little fast thinking might make you more willing to engage in things that your cautious nature might keep you from doing otherwise.