Speeding Minds, Racy Thoughts.

Imagine that you’re procrastinating on the Internet, and you decide to watch a music video. Eventually you settle on LMFAO’s hit song, “Sexy And I Know It.” It’s an upbeat song, with a fast beat, fun lyrics, and a tune that makes it easy to dance along. Will watching this video change how you think and behave?

Warning: Video May Not Be Appropriate For Minors

Everyone loves to talk about the dangers of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll lyrics (or rap, as the case may be). But what if the lyrics aren’t the riskiest thing about those songs?

What if it’s the beat?

There’s good reason to believe that the speed of people’s thoughts might be linked to how risky they are. After all, people who take stimulants like coke or meth tend to think faster than those who don’t, and they also do riskier things. People with mania, another risky sample, experience racing thoughts as well. This “thought speed and risk” connection isn’t even limited to drug users and clinical case studies; people placed under time pressure also make riskier gambling decisions than those who have plenty of time.

But could all of this risk really be due to something as simple as how fast people are thinking? As it turns out, psychologists Jesse Chandler and Emily Pronin recently published some pretty compelling evidence in favor of this idea.

In their first experiment, college students read a bunch of random trivia statements out loud at either half or twice the typical undergraduate’s reading speed. This effectively made the different groups feel like their thoughts were moving “slowly” or “quickly.”

The students then had to play a game where their goal was to inflate a bunch of balloons one at a time, with each click of the mouse making the balloon a tiny bit bigger and adding 5 cents to the participant’s “bank.” However, if the balloon pops, the participant gets no money for that balloon at all. Each balloon is set to pop after a different number of clicks, so this game is often used as a measure of risk-taking – more clicks means the player is taking more of a risk.

What the "balloon game" looks like

As it turns out, the participants in each condition differed on how risky they were willing to be with their balloons. Those who read the sentences very quickly clicked each balloon about 22 times, while those who read the sentences slowly clicked each balloon about 17 times. That might not seem like a very large difference, but it’s statistically significant – and it’s pretty staggering if you consider that the only thing the two groups did differently was read a bunch of unrelated sentences at varying speeds beforehand.

In a second experiment, the researchers checked to see if watching videos at different speeds could have the same effect. A different group of college students watched videos where the average shot length was either the speed of your average pop music video (very fast), your average Hollywood film (very slow), or somewhere in between. The faster the average shot length, the more the students felt like their thoughts were moving quickly.

This time, however, the students didn’t play the same balloon game as before. Instead, they answered a series of questions about their intentions to be risky in their actual lives, rating how likely they were to do things like play drinking games, have unprotected sex, or procrastinate on homework assignments. Not only did the participants who watched the fast video report a higher likelihood of engaging in risky behavior than those in the medium or slow video groups, they also perceived those behaviors to have fewer negative consequences. In fact, this was the underlying reason for the effect – the faster the students felt like their thoughts were, the fewer negative consequences they could see for risky actions, and the more likely they were to have risky intentions as a result.

This is, quite frankly, somewhat terrifying. Something as simple as watching a fast video could make people feel like their thoughts are racing, which might have actual negative consequences in their everyday lives. As the authors themselves point out, movies and TV shows are moving at a faster pace than ever. Could we be setting ourselves up to become riskier and riskier?

Next time you’re tempted to procrastinate by watching pop music videos, watch out. That might not be such a good idea if your goal is to get back to work anytime soon.


Chandler, J.J. & Pronin, E. (2012). Fast Thought Speed Induces Risk Taking. Psychological Science. PMID: 22395129

One response to “Speeding Minds, Racy Thoughts.

  1. Pingback: Speeding Minds, Racy Thoughts. PsySociety « PCC Psychology

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