Think fast!

Let me get this out of the way right up front: There is never a time when thinking slow is good. Ever.

So I was a little surprised when a friend alerted me to a piece on the Psychology Today site entitled “Thinking Fast Promotes Risky Behavior,” by Art Markman, a psychologist at the University of Texas. Any well-constructed research will tell you something, will, that is, give you a part or two for a future snowmobile, so I figured it was worth a deeper look. Often you have to dig in see what they did, rather than accept the wisdom of whoever wrote the title.

In this case, the key is what the researchers mean by “fast thinking.” Because they can’t actually observe thought, they use operational definitions: we measured such-and-such and we’re going to interpret that as “fast thinking.” My advice is to look at what they measured and skip their interpretation. In this case, the operational definitions of “fast thinking” were:

  • asking half the participants to read at twice their normal speed while asking others to read at about half
  • asking a third of participants in another study to watch a movie where the scene changed ever .75 sec., another third watched a film where the scene changed every 1.5 sec. and the remaining third every 3 sec.

So you first have to ask yourself whether this is your idea of “fast thinking.”

Because requiring participants to engage in truly risky behaviors would be too risky to the researchers’ careers, risk tolerance was inferred either by asking participants to play a simple game where there was no actual risk or having them answer several questions.

What can we learn from all this? Here’s Markman’s conclusion:

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.

Try this simple thought experiment. Put yourself in the cockpit of a P-51 Mustang engaged in combat with Luftwaffe FW-190s over the skies of Germany. Think that slowing down and counting to 10 before you take your next action is a great idea? If that’s too farfetched, make it a karate tournament.

What he’s confusing is speed of thinking with tempo of action. “Speed of thinking” in Boyd’s framework has a lot to do with how quickly you can spot and correct mismatches between what you think is going on — your orientation — and what actually is. Again, very hard to think of a case where slower is better.

[As an aside, it’s worth noting that time may also be important when selecting an action and when creating new actions, but it would be incorrect to state that for these purposes, quicker is always better. But the need to keep orientation well matched to reality–to think fast in this sense–is fundamental.]

Tempo of action varies according to the situation and what you’re trying to accomplish. There are times when the ability to maintain a high tempo is extremely useful, as illustrated in Strategic Game, p. 44 (note that this chart is entitled “Illuminating example.”)  There are others where you don’t appear to be doing anything, or, if you’re trying to bait a trap for an opponent, moving slowly enough that he will see what you’re doing (and draw the wrong conclusion).

And there are still other times when–if the situation will let you–it’s good to step back take a few deep breaths, do some analysis, and see what you come up with. But what do you suppose your brain is doing during this 10 seconds? It better be thinking like all hell.

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