Thought Speed and Health Communication
Summary and Keywords
Social psychological research on thinking has generally focused on the attitudes, emotions, motivations, and biases that affect thinking and consequent behavior. What has received less attention is the speed of thinking: how quickly thinking occurs and whether thoughts accelerate or slow down. Communication design and processing may take for granted that the structure and reception of messages occur at a certain speed. Recent findings from the psychological study of thought speed shed light on ways that this research may be applied to health communication. Fast and slow rates of thinking are correlated with distinct patterns of affective, cognitive, physiological, and behavioral events. Fast thinking is associated with positive mood, energy, approach motivation, arousal, creativity, and risk-taking. Slow thinking is associated with negative mood and depression, low energy, and cognitive impairment. Potential theories exist for why psychological and physiological experiences are associated with thought speed.
Recent experimental research demonstrates that thought speed can be successfully manipulated to elicit psychological effects, and it can be manipulated independent of thought content. Researchers, healthcare practitioners, and communicators should be aware of the psychological correlates and consequences of thought speed and consider harnessing the effects of thought speed to augment communication. Thought acceleration and deceleration can be integrated into the design and processing of health communication.
Think of a particularly engaging conversation with friends, in which multiple ideas and insights come to mind. Your thoughts seem to bubble up faster than you can even express. In this example, your thinking may feel as though it is occurring at a faster-than-usual rate. Next, consider working through a challenging writing task. You feel the ideas that you need to generate are not there. Every sentence is a laborious endeavor. In this example, your thinking may feel slow, sluggish, and strained.
The psychological study of thought speed investigates affective, cognitive, and behavioral consequences of accelerating and decelerating thoughts. Corroborating evidence from diverse fields of study shows that thought speed covaries with specific psychological experiences. Converging lines of evidence from clinical psychology, emotion research, cognitive psychology, physiological psychology, psychopharmacology, social psychology, music, and film studies point to the mood-uplifting and energizing effects of fast thinking, as well as the mood-depressing effects of slow thinking. Importantly, experimental research has highlighted the fact that thought speed can cause psychological effects. Experimental thought acceleration independently boosts positive mood, even when the content of the text is negative (Pronin & Wegner, 2006), when the content is self-generated (Pronin, Jacobs, & Wegner, 2008), and when the content is repetitive (Rosser & Wright, 2016). This article summarizes the literature on the psychological effects of fast and slow thinking, describes the relevance of thought speed for health communication, and outlines the theoretical basis for why thought speed affects mood, thinking, and behavior.
Correlates of Fast and Slow Thinking
A thoughtful deployment of thought speed may enhance a receiver’s mood, comprehension, interpretation of the message, and motivation to act. Here, we review the empirical literature on the causes and effects of fast and slow thinking. The purpose of this review is to provide information on the effects of thought speed that health communicators and practitioners can use to craft and deliver messages thoughtfully. Understanding thought acceleration and deceleration can benefit message design and delivery. Research on thought speed can also help communicators tailor their messages to special populations and take into account individual differences and experiences of subjective thought speed. In this first section, we review the causes of fast and slow thinking. In the following sections, we review the psychological effects of fast and slow thinking, along with giving an overview of experimental thought speed inductions and their consequences for affect and behavior.
Slow Thinking and Depression
Clinicians have long recognized that abnormalities in thought speed are present in mood disorders. In particular, faster- and slower-than-normal thinking are closely associated with mood and attention disorders. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) consistently lists psychomotor slowing as a symptom of depressive disorders and racing thoughts as a symptom of the manic episode of bipolar disorders (DSM-5, American Psychiatric Association, 2013). In addition, excessive cognitive slowing may be a facet of attention disorders such as attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It is important to understand how thought speed abnormalities relate to clinical symptomatology for two reasons. First, aberrations in the speed of thought covary with specific patterns of clinical symptoms. This association elucidates the effect of thought speed on emotion, cognition, and behavior. Second, communicators must be aware of audience characteristics. If thought speed abnormalities are common symptoms of mood and attention disorders, patients who are experiencing active episodes may process information differently from patients in remission or individuals who are asymptomatic. This has particularly significant implications for self-management communication and medical interactions. Therefore, communicators and clinicians should be mindful of the speed of message presentation, as well as characteristics of thought speed abnormalities in depression, episodes of mania, and attention disorders.
The cooccurrence of slow thinking and depression highlights the ways that slow thought speed is linked to mood and cognition. In depressive disorders, psychomotor slowing is defined as the subjective feeling that thinking and movement are so sluggish and laborious that it is as if cognitions and movement are paralyzed. Psychomotor slowing is a hallmark symptom that occurs alongside cardinal symptoms of depression such as negative mood, anhedonia (loss of pleasure), and loss of motivation (DSM-5, American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Decreased rate of thought is an aspect of psychomotor slowing found in depression, and perceptions of mental slowing can occur along with actual slowing of cognitive processes, such as longer response latencies on cognitive tasks, impaired working memory capacity, and impaired productivity (Hubbard et al., 2016; Lyubomirsky, Kasri, & Zehm, 2003; Schwartz, Friedman, Lindsay, & Narrol, 1982). Physiological markers of mental slowing appear during depressive episodes. Reduced activity in areas of the prefrontal cortex and neostriatum is correlated with psychomotor slowing observed in patients experiencing depression (Hickie et al., 1999; Soares & Mann, 1997). Taken together, this research suggests that in addition to the content and negative valence of depressive cognitions, thinking in depression feels slower and is linked to objectively slower and impaired performance on cognitive and behavioral tasks.
Fast Thinking and Mania
On the other side of the mood spectrum, the hedonic and activity-enhancing effects of fast thinking are evident in the literature on mania and bipolar disorder. The clinical symptomatology of mania highlights the psychological effects that are associated with fast thinking. Mania is characterized by symptoms of elated mood, energy, activation, flight of ideas, decreased need for sleep, grandiosity, and irritability. Racing thoughts and flight of ideas may cooccur or precede cardinal symptoms of mania, such as activation and positive mood. Racing thoughts may also occur in subclinical hypomanic episodes (Mansell & Pedley, 2008). Clinicians have identified the occurrence of fast, rapid thinking and behavioral activation as a prodrome of a mania in bipolar disorder (Mansell & Pedley, 2008). It is interesting to note that along with racing thoughts and elated mood, behavioral activation, positive mood, reward sensitivity, and goal-attainment orientation are characteristic dimensions of mania.
Sluggish Cognitive Tempo
Aside from mood disorders, abnormal rates of thought speed have been described in ADHD. Clinicians have recently proposed that sluggish cognitive tempo (SCT) is a facet of ADHD. SCT is characterized by a suite of cognitive and motivational patterns including slowness of thought and movement, lethargy, apathy, mental “fogginess,” low motivation, and slowness and difficulty in completing tasks (Becker, 2013). There is some controversy surrounding whether SCT should be classified as a facet of ADHD or if it is a separate clinical construct that is highly correlated with ADHD. Interestingly, empirical studies that control for the presence of ADHD find that SCT remains highly correlated with internalizing disorders such as anxiety and depression (Becker, 2013). The association between depression and SCT is especially high, which is not surprising given that psychomotor slowing also occurs in depression. SCT is correlated with depression and academic impairment for college students and school-aged children in the United States and Spain (del Mar Bernad, Servera, Becker, & Burns, 2016; del Mar Bernad, Servera, Grases, Collado, & Burns, 2014; Lee, Burns, Snell, & McBurnett, 2014; Becker, Langberg, Luebbe, Dvorsky, & Flannery, 2013; Burns, Servera, Bernad, Carrillo, & Cardo, 2013).
Little is known about how the speed of processing of individuals with mood disorders and SCT interacts with the speed of messages that are communicated to these individuals. Some research has highlighted how thought speed acceleration may benefit those who suffer from depressive disorders. Yang, Friedman-Wheeler, and Pronin (2014) manipulated speed of thought in participants with mild, moderate, and severe dysphoria, as well as nondysphoric participants. Experimenters randomly assigned participants to read text that streamed at a fast rate (40 ms/letter) compared to a neutral rate (390 ms/letter). Participants in the fast condition who were nondepressed or mildly to moderately depressed experienced increased positive mood after the intervention, compared to participants in the slower condition. The fast speed induction did not affect those with severe depressive symptoms, though. This research highlights the promises and the limits of mood-uplifting effects of fast thinking. It is possible that the fast condition was either too fast or not powerful enough to benefit individuals with more severe symptoms. A separate experiment investigating the effects of fast thinking on manic symptoms showed that both fast and variable thinking independently boosted positive mood and manic symptom activation in a sample of adult participants drawn from the general population (Rosser & Wright, 2016). In this experiment, inducing slow thinking lowered postintervention positive mood, compared to preintervention positive mood. However, slow thinking did not substantially decrease manic activation.
Implications for Health Communication
Taken together, these experiments show that thought speed can be manipulated to produce psychological effects associated with depression and mania. Fast thinking appears to create maniclike symptoms of activation and elated mood. Fast thinking may help temporarily boost positive mood to an extent, even for individuals experiencing mild to moderate dysphoria. On the other hand, slow thinking may temporarily depress positive mood and raise negative mood. These findings have several implications for health communication. Health information and messages have the potential to induce fast or slow thinking through pace of presentation. The communicator should be mindful of potential outcomes of fast or slow presentations and how these outcomes differ depending on the audience.
Initial experimentation suggests that thought acceleration temporarily elevates mood, even for dysphoric individuals. On the other hand, presenting information at a very fast pace to severely depressed individuals has the potential to be ineffective or aversive. Messages that proceed at a very slow rate can potentially depress mood. A limitation of this research is that the text used in speed inductions did not aim to communicate specific information (e.g., health or self-management advice). Rather, the speed inductions consisted of neutral trivia statements. Future research should examine how speed affects the processing of message content. For example, does recall of information change as a function of presentation speed? Do the positive mood and activation associated with fast thinking motivate patients to act when presented with health information? These and other questions should direct research to examine more closely the effects of communication speed in the context of mood disorders and SCT.
Effects of Fast and Slow Thinking
Thought Speed, Fluency, Time Perception, and Risk-Taking
As research on clinical symptomatology suggests, correlates of thought speed are not limited to mood. Variations in thought speed are also associated with aspects of cognition such as subjective experiences of time progression, fluency, working memory, creativity, and risk-taking. In this section, we focus on how thought speed relates to fluency, time perception, and risk-taking, as these constructs are particularly relevant to the conditions and aims of health communication. Communication of health information may take into account the cognitive correlates of fast and slow thinking in order to design messages with particular intentions. Thought acceleration, in particular, has been linked to cognitive states that augment approach-oriented behaviors. Fast thinking has also been linked to perceptual fluency, which has numerous applications for message construction and delivery.
Fast thinking shares some overlap with fluent thinking. The experience of fluency can be described as the ease and facility of processing stimuli and information (Alter & Oppenheimer, 2009). When thinking occurs at a faster rate or when stimuli appear at a faster rate, it can give the appearance of ease of processing, and thus fluency. Not all stimuli that are fluent necessarily manipulate thought speed. For example, fluency can be manipulated by rhyming schemes, legibility of handwriting, font color contrast, prototypicality of objects, ease of pronunciation, and semantic priming (Alter & Oppenheimer, 2009). However, ease of processing and speed of processing can cooccur in some forms of fluency. In fact, researchers may use processing speed as a marker or outcome of fluent presentations. For example, words presented on a high-contrast background, which are easy to read, are identified at a faster rate than words presented on a low-contrast background that are more difficult to read (Reber, Wurtz, & Zimmermann, 2004). Therefore, it seems that ease of processing may be conflated with speed of processing.
Greater fluency enhances the positive evaluation of stimuli and the meta-cognitive appraisal of the enjoyment of thinking. This relates to many aspects of communication. People judge easy-to-read handwriting and fonts as more pleasant and the information they convey as more trustworthy (Alter, Oppenheimer, Epley, & Eyre, 2007; Reber & Zupanek, 2002). More fluent backgrounds (e.g., high contrast) enhance processing of words and preference for words (Reber et al., 2004). Subjectively experienced ease of processing also determines the degree to which stimuli are judged as being likeable and pleasant. Participants rated a stimulus as more likeable when they perceived it to be easily processed, which also corresponded with experimentally manipulated ease of processing through a priming procedure (Forster, Leder, & Ansorge, 2013).
A concept related to thought speed and fluency is the subjective experience of thought progression. The experience of progression can occur across a definite period of time, or it can be induced through a series of progressive words or statements. Mason and Bar (2012) varied the degree to which word series demonstrated associative progression. In one experiment, stagnant lists consisted of words that were related to each other and constrained within a narrow range of ideas, while progressive lists consisted of words that were associated with one another but jumped across broad categories of information. Participants who read the progressive lists indicated significantly more positive mood than participants who read the stagnant lists. In a separate experiment, participants reported better mood when reading logical progressive lists than scrambled lists. Although these experiments did not investigate thought speed per se, we note that mental motion (which involves both thought speed and thought variability; see Pronin & Jacobs, 2008) is associated with thought progression. Previous research has shown that thought variability can induce more positive effects on mood and activation relative to repetition in thinking (Rosser & Wright, 2016).
The experience of time progression is further linked to the concept of speed in thinking. The old adage “Time flies when you’re having fun” refers to the sensation that enjoyable and engaging tasks somehow speed up the passage of time. This sensation of time acceleration has also been implicated in the concept of psychological flow, wherein individuals experience what seems to be an altered state of consciousness characterized by high engagement, pleasure, and mental activation (Csikzentmihalyi & Csikzentmihalyi, 1988). Perception of time progression during everyday life activities is correlated with positive evaluations, such as the perception that time is progressing quickly being positively associated with happiness and optimism (John & Lang, 2015). Experimental manipulations of subjective time progression provide further support for the link between thought speed and mood. Sackett, Meyvis, Nelson, Converse, and Sackett (2010) randomly assigned participants to fast and slow time perception conditions. In the fast condition, experimenters told participants that they had spent only 5 minutes on a 10-minute task, thus inducing the feeling that time “flew by” during the task. In the slow condition, experimenters told participants that they had spent 20 minutes on a 10-minute task, inducing the feeling that time dragged on for a long time. Participants who perceived time to fly by quickly rated their enjoyment of the task to be higher. Participants were more excited, had more fun, and were more engaged when time seemed to fly by quickly (Sackett et al., 2010).
Fast time perception can also be induced by increasing the degree of behavioral approach motivation that a person experiences. Participants who experienced experimentally induced positive approach motivation perceived time to progress faster than participants who experienced negative approach motivation or low motivation (Gable & Poole, 2012). All together, the literature on time perception, mood, and motivation shows that appetitive emotions and motivations are correlated with thought speed, and this correlation appears bidirectional. Feeling like time flies and that time is short is linked with increased arousal, positive emotion, and positive expectations. Feelings of high arousal and positive emotion alter the experience of time itself, such that time appears to move more quickly.
Fast thinking may also affect risk-taking. Behavioral activation involves reward-driven approach motivation that may sometimes evince as risk-taking behaviors. Risk-taking is defined as making decisions that place the self or others in potentially harmful situations in order to pursue goals and rewards. Correlational evidence from clinical symptomatology points to an association between racing thoughts and other symptoms of mania, such as increased risk-taking behavior. Individuals often report predilection to take risks when experiencing episodes of mania or hypomania (Johnson, Edge, Holmes, & Carver, 2012). For example, individuals experiencing mania or hypomania are more likely to report engaging in risky sexual behavior and gambling (Mansell & Pedley, 2008).
Chandler and Pronin (2012) investigated the effect of fast thinking on risk-taking behavior by directly manipulating thought speed. First, participants who completed a verbal thought acceleration manipulation were more likely to make riskier financial decisions than participants who read the same text at a slower pace. Riskiness of financial decisions was measured using the Balloon Analogue Risk Task (BART). In the BART paradigm, riskier decisions correspond to greater financial rewards, but also greater risk for financial loss. In a second experiment, participants were randomly assigned to fast, slow, or neutral thought speed conditions that were manipulated by varying the average shot length of a brief video. Participants who watched the fast video were more likely to endorse engaging in risky everyday behaviors (e.g., having unprotected sex) than were participants who watched neutral and slow videos. The effect of thought speed on intention to take risks was mediated by perceptions of negative consequences. In other words, participants in the fast condition were less likely to perceive negative consequences of risky behavior, and this perception statistically mediated the association between fast thinking and endorsement of risk-taking.
Thought Speed and Psychophysiology
The study of the physiological effects of fast thinking has proceeded along two somewhat indirect lines of research. First, psychopharmacology and addiction science suggest that fast thinking alters the physiological experience of arousal. Second, studies from the psychophysiology of behavioral activation provide supporting, albeit indirect, evidence for the link between fast thinking and physiological arousal.
Pharmacological speed inductions in the form of stimulant drugs have long been used to induce hedonic effects. Caffeine, which is known to increase psychological activity and speed, is commonly taken to increase energy and alertness (Lieberman, 2001). Amphetamines are stimulant drugs that are known to affect time perception and thought speed. Amphetamines such as cocaine are known to increase physiological alertness, positive mood, and risk-taking (Ilieva, Boland, & Farah, 2013; Asghar, Tanay, Baker, Greenshaw, & Silverstone, 2003). The main pathway by which amphetamines enhance mood and appetitive behaviors is through activation of the dopaminergic system, which is implicated in reward sensitivity and goal-directed cognitions and behaviors (Schultz, Dayan, & Montague, 1997).
Research on the psychophysiology of behavioral activation provides additional evidence for the relationship between approach motivation and activation of the sympathetic nervous system. There is a well-researched link between behavioral activation and inhibition and neuropsychological and physiological response (Amodio, Master, Yee, & Taylor, 2008). In particular, the dopaminergic system is implicated in the behavioral activation system (Schultz et al., 1997). Behavioral activation and inhibition (BIS/BAS systems) are related to physiological responses associated with the actions of the autonomic nervous system, such as respiration, cardiovascular activity, and muscular tone (Knyazev, Slobodskaya, & Wilson, 2002). Furthermore, there is a strong implication of disturbances to the behavioral activation system in mania and the behavioral inhibition system in depression (Johnson et al., 2012; Johnson, Turner, & Iwata, 2003; Urošević, Abramson, Harmon-Jones, & Alloy, 2008). All together, these lines of evidence point to an increasingly clear connection between psychophysiological actions of BIS/BAS and thought speed. A direct manipulation of speed involving tempo in music and rhythm provides experimental corroboration for this link. Exposure to a fast tempo increased the activity of the sympathetic nervous system, which coordinates behavioral arousal (Khalfa, Roy, Rainville, Dalla Bella, & Peretz, 2008).
Implications for Message Delivery
Additional experimental research utilizing direct and controlled speed inductions must be done before the link between message speed and psychophysiological arousal is crystallized. However, clinicians and communicators should be advised that the speed at which messages are presented could have unintentional effects on behavioral activation and physiological arousal. Based on the theory of thought speed, information that is intended to spur individuals to action and to induce positive affect may benefit from fluent and brisk presentation. Experimental research has shown that mood inductions can affect health message processing. For example, positive mood induction was shown to enhance participants’ behavioral intentions when the message was relevant to the self and contained loss-framing (Wirtz, Sar, & Ghuge, 2015).
Although fast thinking and behavioral activation may increase positive affect in receivers, some consequences of fast and slow thinking may be less desirable when communicating health information. Research has shown that behavioral activation is positively correlated with riskier health behaviors, such as overeating, alcohol and drug use, and riskier sexual behaviors (Voigt et al., 2009). Fast, repetitive thinking has been theorized to generate feelings of fear and anxiety (Pronin & Jacobs, 2008). Studies on fear messaging in health communication have indicated that some fear and negative mood inducements can promote personal-level risk perceptions that subsequently spur receivers to take action (e.g., Paek, Oh, & Hove, 2016; Lerner, Gonzales, Small, & Fischhoff, 2003, Huurne & Gutteling, 2008). However, at this point, it is unclear whether fast thinking can induce a fear response and, if so, how this can be tailored to personally relevant health messaging. Until subsequent studies can further examine the effect of fast thinking on health communication, we recommend caution when considering the application of thought speed and the intended impact of messages.
Experimental Thought Acceleration and Deceleration: The Implications of Thought Speed for Psychological Variables, Communication Design, and Processing of Messages
Fast and slow thinking have been directly and successfully manipulated through multiple methods (Table 1). Typically, thought speed involves cognitive and perceptual tasks. The perception of speed can be altered through visual and auditory modalities, which are most relevant to communication. These include visual, verbal, and auditory stimuli that comprise tasks such as reading text, watching a video, or listening to music. Modalities can also be combined to induce fast or slow thinking. For example, Pronin et al. (2008) projected a clip from I Love Lucy at a slow versus a fast rate. Participants narrated the action that occurred in the clip. This procedure involved both visual and auditory experiences of speed. In addition to external manipulations of speed through the perception of auditory and visual stimuli, self-generated ideas and memories can be used to accelerate or decelerate the speed of thought. Participants who were instructed to quickly generate as many ideas as possible for a brainstorming task experienced more positive mood than participants who were instructed to think of fewer ideas for the same brainstorming task (Pronin et al., 2008). Finally, the experience of speed can be manipulated by altering the subjective perception of time duration. This can involve giving false feedback about the length of time that it took to complete a task (Sackett et al., 2010).
Laboratory Inductions of Thought Speed
Verbal manipulations of thought speed are most relevant to health communication. Most forms of health communication aim to transmit knowledge and attitudes related to public health, medical advice, and self-management (Parrott, 2004). Verbal manipulations of thought speed are the most frequently used methods to induce fast and slow thinking. These manipulations typically involve procedures wherein participants read statements that stream via Microsoft PowerPoint slides or video format. The rate at which statements stream can be pretested in order to induce a subjective experience of thought speed, such that the fast rate results in a fast perceived thought speed, and neutral or slow rates result in moderate or slow perceived thought speeds, respectively. Experimenters typically instruct participants to read the statements as they stream, keeping pace with the video. This reading can be tape-recorded or simply noted by the experimenter to ensure compliance (e.g., Yang et al., 2014).
Experimenters may alter the content of the statements in various ways. Pronin and Wegner (2006) manipulated the speed of statements that were progressively more depressing or elating (e.g., the Velten mood induction paradigm). In their experiment, they found that participants who were in the fast condition felt a more positive mood than participants who were in the slow condition. The mood-boosting effect of fast thinking occurred when participants read increasingly depressive statements, as well as increasingly happy statements. In other words, speed influenced mood independent of thought content. In addition, experimenters may change the variability and repetitiveness of statements (Rosser & Wright, 2016); the same study found that speed and variability of statements independently affected positive mood.
Table 1. Categories of Thought Speed Manipulation
Type of Speed Manipulation
Potential Applications in Health Communication
Text is programmed to stream at a predetermined rate, while participants keep pace with reading the text.
Social media messages (e.g., Facebook, Twitter), verbal information and literature, auditory messages.
Nonverbal auditory stimuli are played at various tempi. Experimental manipulations of music may alter the tempo of a specific passage, or may simply play a percussive beat.
Trochidis and Bigand (2013)
Informational videos, public service announcements, advertisements.
Images in video or slideshow appear at a predetermined rate.
Pronin and Chandler (2012)
Informational videos, public service announcements, advertisements.
Experimenters instruct participants to generate ideas at a fast as opposed to a slow pace.
Pronin et al. (2008)
Patient/receiver prompting, self-generated repetition of health information.
The passage of time can be manipulated to appear to pass quickly as opposed to slowly.
Sackett et al. (2010)
Patient-medical professional communication.
Speed Induction Through Music and Film
In music, variations in tempo, tone, timbre, and volume create the emotional tone of a composition. Experimental manipulations of mood using music often manipulate positive and negative emotions expressed through music by using fast and slow tempi, respectively (Morton & Trehub, 2007). In film, speed can be conveyed through shot length and visual activity within frames. Both music and film represent valuable media through which health information can be conveyed. In this section, we review research on the effects of speed in music and film.
Research in music has found that tempo and the organization of pitch (e.g., major versus minor keys) interact to determine the likelihood that a passage is interpreted in a more positive compared to a more negative valence. Indeed, there appears to be a tonal and temporal “signature” for emotions portrayed in music. This reflects an interaction between the content and the speed of musical passages. Anger and happiness are induced with a fast tempo in a minor or a major key, respectively (Hailstone et al., 2009). Fear can be induced by a minor key paired with a highly variable tempo (ranging from slow to fast) and dynamic fluctuations in volume (Hailstone et al., 2009). Slow tempo can be paired with minor or major keys to induce sadness or calmness, respectively. Trochidis and Bigand’s (2013) experimental manipulations of tempo and major/minor mode revealed regular patterns of emotional arousal through self-report and electroencelphogram (EEG) activity. Participants associated happiness with musical passages in which fast tempo covaried with a major key, while participants perceived anger when fast tempo was paired with a minor key. Slow tempo paired with a major key elicited feelings of serenity, while slow tempo paired with a minor key elicited sadness. Moreover, the effect of tempo was observed in distinct locations of brain activation that corresponded with self-reported perceptions of emotional content. Exposure to fast tempi activated the frontal area of the left hemisphere, which is often associated with positive emotion and arousal, while exposure to slow tempi decreased activation of the same region (Trochidis & Bigand, 2013).
Tempo can also influence psychophysiological responses such as respiration and heart rate. This supports the notion that thought acceleration can directly affect physiological responses, especially responses that prepare the body for action and activity. Khalfa et al. (2008) demonstrated the psychophysiological effects of fast and slow tempi. Participants were exposed to excerpts of happy music (fast tempo, major key) and sad music (slow tempo, minor key). Participants correctly identified the intended emotions of the musical excerpts and exhibited distinct patterns of physiological arousal. Heart rate, respiration rate, zygomatic muscle activity, and electrodermal activity all increased when listening to fast, happy music (Khalfa et al., 2008). Furthermore, experimenters were able to observe the psychophysiological effects of manipulating tempo alone. By presenting only the tempo of a musical passage (with tonal content removed), experimenters isolated the effects of tempo on mood. A fast tempo was found to increase respiration rate relative to a slow tempo. Interestingly, participants regarded the fast tempo–only excerpts as unpleasant but stimulating. The slow tempo–only condition was interpreted as similarly unpleasant, but more relaxing. All together, these findings support the idea that tempo acceleration induces physiological and emotional responses associated with action and arousal, while tempo deceleration depresses these responses (Khalfa et al., 2008).
The literature on music and emotion supports the notion that overall, fast tempi are more commonly associated with energy, happiness, optimism, arousal, urgency, anger, and threat (Rigg, 1940; Schafer, Huron, Shanahan, & Sedlmeier, 2015). We note that while the feelings associated with fast tempi vary in terms of valence (i.e., happiness versus anger), these emotions fall under the behavioral activation system. The emotions elicited by fast tempi have all been identified as high-arousal emotions that motivate individuals to act. Even in the case where faster tempi are more associated with stress and danger, these perceptions may encourage the body to spring into action. Research on perceptions of fear, danger, and threat show that such cognitive appraisals can lead to the arousal of the sympathetic nervous system and subsequent behavioral activation (Amodio et al., 2008). On the other hand, music with a slow tempo is linked with sadness, calmness, and serenity. Again, although there is variation in the valence associated with slow tempi, the emotions associated with slowness are not typically regarded as highly energetic or arousing.
Evidence from the psychology of music presents a case for the arousing effects of fast speed in an auditory modality; meanwhile, empirical research from film studies builds a case for the manipulation of speed in a visual modality. Rudolph Arnheim, in his landmark work on the psychology of aesthetics, Art and Visual Perception, described qualitative changes in the perception and interpretation of movement induced by the camera operator’s manipulation of speed on film:
[T]he change of speed not only served to adapt visual movement to the range of human perception, but also changed the expressive qualities of an action. When street scenes were photographed at subnormal speed for the early slapstick comedies, cars did not simply move faster. They dashed around in an aggressive panic—a mood hardly suggested by their normal behavior.
(Arnheim, 1954, p. 386)
Filmmakers have long manipulated the duration of shot length to elicit varying moods and reactions in viewers. The average shot length in film has been declining since the mid-20th century and is now around 5 seconds long (Cutting, DeLong, & Brunick, 2011). In addition, both movement activity of stimuli within films and motion activity of changing camera perspectives and frames have been increasing in recent decades, particularly in action and adventure films (Cutting et al., 2011). Thus, the increase of visual activity within films and the decreased duration of frame length seem to collectively add to the impression that the world is moving faster.
Shot length and visual activity in video format can produce effects associated with speed. Brief shot length and high degree of activity within films are associated with increased audience engagement and excitement (Cutting et al., 2011). Films can be sped up or slowed down to produce specific experiences of fast and slow thinking and their associated downstream effects, such as positive mood and confidence (Pronin et al., 2008). The average shot length can be lengthened or shortened to induce slow or fast perceived thought speed (Chandler & Pronin, 2012).
Theoretical Approaches to Fast Thinking: Evolution, Emotional Expression, Embodiment, and Entrainment
What accounts for the effects of fast thinking reviewed in this article? Theorizing on thought speed proposes that the activating and positive mood-enhancing effects of fast thinking may be adaptive (Pronin, 2013). The physiological correlates of behavioral activation and approach motivation involve actions that prepare the mind and body for action. For example, the increased sympathetic nervous system arousal that occurs with behavioral activation (e.g., increased heart rate and respiration) prepares the body for speedy and relevant action (Gray, 1990; Schultz et al., 1997). Evidence from clinical psychology, psychophysiology, addiction, and experimental thought speed induction point to strong connections between behavioral activation, fast thinking, and psychophysiological arousal (Amodio et al., 2008; Knyazev et al., 2002). An adaptive account of thought speed would predict that fast thinking in response to urgency and threat, whether due to danger or reward, would be beneficial because it assists an organism in making timely and appropriate decisions. Under this theory, fast thinking belongs to the suite of cognitions, emotions, and processes that have evolved to support behavioral activation (Pronin, 2013).
Related psychological processes of emotional expression, embodiment, and entrainment may explain why the temporary experience of fast and slow thinking affects approach- and avoidance-oriented emotions, cognitions, and behaviors. According to the facial feedback hypothesis, the very act of expressing an emotion can cause one to experience that emotion. In a classic experiment, flexing the zygomatic muscles of the face to induce a smile caused participants to evaluate stimuli as more enjoyable and funny (Strack, Martin, & Stepper, 1988). Similarly, the physical embodiment of ideas and stereotypical behaviors can evoke associated emotions and cognitions. Walking at a slow pace can spark associations with stereotypes of the elderly (Mussweiller, 2005). Head movements that simulate agreement and disagreement can affect evaluations of the persuasiveness of messages (Wells & Petty, 1980). Embodying smooth, fluid, and fluent motions can increase creative generation (Slepian & Ambady, 2012). It is possible that experiencing racing or sluggish thoughts and stimuli produces a similar effect. Temporary changes in thought speed may evoke the emotions, cognitions, and behaviors that are associated with natural thought acceleration and deceleration, such as responding to urgent changes in one’s environment or winding down to relax.
A different but related mechanism that may contribute to an understanding of the downstream effects of thought speed is the concept of tempo entrainment. Tempo entrainment refers to the temporal synchronization of two objects or organisms. Specifically, rhythmic internal events within humans (e.g., respiration, heart rate) can correspond with external “pacemakers” such as musical tempo (Haas, Distenfeld, & Axen, 1986). Tempo entrainment has been hypothesized as a mechanism that explains why fast tempo creates physiologically arousing effects (Khalfa et al., 2008; Etzel, Johnson, Dickerson, Tranel, & Adolphs, 2006; Haas et al., 1986). Tempo entrainment could account for the success of temporary speed inductions: temporal physiological rhythms can be accelerated and decelerated using external stimuli set at a specific pace. Together with evidence from emotion expression and embodiment, tempo entrainment may be part of the mechanism whereby thought speed can be altered and fast and slow thinking can elicit different psychological effects.
Discussion of the Literature
Final Implications for Health Communication
Research and practice in communication can benefit from an awareness of the causes and consequences of thought speed. The speed and fluency with which messages are transmitted have implications for how receivers perceive, interpret, and internalize information. This is noteworthy because successful health and risk communication has important implications for public health, medical interactions, and self-management of care (Parrott, 2004). Each area of health communication—the content, design, and delivery, as well as the nonverbal and verbal information presented—influences variables such as message comprehension, persuasiveness, and behavior change (Parrott, 2004).
The psychology of thought speed is particularly relevant to two main aspects of health communication: (a) the design and delivery of the message and (b) the processing of the message by the recipient. In the first instance, communicators must not ignore that the delivery and structure of a message may be just as important as the content. The physical rate at which a message is delivered is an often-neglected quality of the message itself. Despite their neglected status, all messages possess some aspect of temporal duration and pacing. The speed at which a public service announcement (PSA) conveys information may affect how that information is processed and utilized. Moreover, the speed and ease of processing the PSA may potentially affect receivers’ mood and liking or trust of the message.
In some cases, such as with written materials, one cannot control the rate at which a message is read. For such materials, the fluency of communication can be manipulated to influence the perceived speed and ease of processing the message (Alter et al., 2007; Reber et al., 2004). Moreover, in recent experiments from our laboratory (Molouki & Pronin, Forthcoming), we have found that people report thinking faster after reading denser rather than more verbose text. Denser text (i.e., text with substantively more content expressed in the same number of words) should literally induce faster thought speed by inducing the reader to process more thoughts per sentence or paragraph.
Health communicators should be aware of the potential speed-altering effects of some communication media compared to others. For example, communication via online chat, email, text-messaging, newsfeeds, and social media may induce unintended thought speed effects. Text-messaging has been used effectively in applied health communication research to transmit prevention messages and treatment reminders (Cole-Lewis & Kershaw, 2017; McCoy et al., 2017). Likewise, social media (e.g., Facebook postings) have been used by state health departments in the United States as a platform for communicating brief messages about health and public safety–related concerns (Jha, Lin, & Savoia, 2016). As these media are increasingly used by communicators of health information, it is perhaps useful to consider how the swiftness of such information delivery may cause mood and activation effects in receivers. Health communicators may potentially use this to their advantage, for example, when promoting messages that encourage the receiver to take action.
Experimental research should be conducted to examine whether health messages that induce fast thinking motivate receivers to spring into action to complete health behaviors such as scheduling screenings, vaccinations, and other preventative health measures. Regardless of whether thought speed is directly manipulated in a message, communicators should be cognizant of the fact that some individuals who receive their messages may differ in how quickly their thoughts seem to flow. When communicating to individuals who experience altered rates of thinking (due, for example, to depression, SCT, or mania), practitioners and clinicians should be mindful of the fact that each recipient’s experience of the communication may differ from the communicator’s or the general population’s processing of the message. For example, professionals who work with patients diagnosed with depression may take into consideration that slow thinking from psychomotor slowing is a symptom of depression and can affect cognitive tasks associated with message comprehension, such as working memory and attention (Hubbard et al., 2016; Lyubomirsky et al., 2003). While laboratory research has demonstrated that fast thinking can enhance positive mood among individuals with dysphoria, we note that the speed inductions in this research involved reading simple (and possibly stimulating) trivia statements (Yang et al., 2014). It is possible that presenting dense medical or technical information requiring important decision-making tasks at a fast rate may have the opposite effect for people currently experiencing a depressive episode. For depression as well as for ADHD and bipolar disorder, further research is needed to clarify the effects of thought speed on the comprehension and experience of different varieties of information and comprehension tasks.
The communication of information occurs along auditory and/or visual dimensions. Given that speed is a quality of auditory, visual, and verbal input, we highlight the importance of considering thought speed in health communication. First, aberrations in thought speed should be noted for patients with depression, bipolar disorder, and/or SCT. Individual differences in psychomotor speed may influence how people process messages. Second, manipulations of thought speed affect a host of emotional, cognitive, and behavioral factors related to activation and arousal. Health communicators can take this into account in the design and delivery of their messages. For example, music and film can be and are frequently used to convey, complement, and augment messages related to health (e.g., in PSAs and care-management videos). Faster tempi and shorter screen cuts are linked to more arousing, activating moods. Slower tempi and shorter screen cuts have mood- and arousal-depressing effects. The fluency and perceived time duration of messages can affect receivers’ liking and processing of information. Health communicators have at their disposal an arsenal of tools uncovered by the research literature on the causes and effects of thought speed. By manipulating and minding the speed at which health information and messages are broadcast, perhaps clinicians and communicators can further augment their capacity to enhance health, well-being, and insight.
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