Study explores 'manic' thinking

How fast thinking makes us happy, energized and self-confident

When people are made to think quickly, they report feeling happier as a result. They also say they are more energetic, more creative, more powerful, and more self-assured. In short, they reported a whole set of experiences associated with being "manic."

Fast thinking, or "racing thoughts," is most commonly known as a symptom of the clinical psychiatric disorder of mania (and of the manic part of bipolar disorder or "manic-depression"). But, according to Princeton University psychologist Emily Pronin, most healthy people also have experienced racing thoughts at some point in time--perhaps when they are excited about a new idea they have just learned, or when they are brainstorming with a group of people, or even when they lie in bed unable to fall asleep. Pronin and her Harvard colleague Daniel Wegner decided to explore whether inducing people to think fast might lead them to feel some of the other experiences also associated with the manic experience.

To examine this question, they experimentally manipulated the pace at which participants read a series of statements. Half of participants read the statements at a fast pace (about twice as fast as normal reading speed) and the other half read the statements at a slow pace (about twice as slow as normal reading speed). They then completed a questionnaire assessing their mood, energy level, self-esteem, etc., using standard psychological measures. As an added twist, some of the participants read statements that were very depressing in content (e.g., I want to go to sleep and never wake up) while others read statements that were very elating in content (e.g., Wow! I feel great!). The researchers found that regardless of the content of the statements, people felt happier, more energetic, more creative, more powerful, and more grandiose when they read the statements at a fast rather than a slow pace. In fact, the effect of thought speed was just as powerful as the effect of the content of the thoughts. In other words, the speed of people's cognitive processing was just as important as what they processed in determining their mood. Even thinking sad thoughts at a fast pace made people relatively happy.

The article, titled "Manic Thinking: Independent Effects of Thought Speed and Thought Content on Mood" appears in the September issue of Psychological Science, and was co-authored by Emily Pronin of Princeton University and Daniel Wegner of Harvard University.

The reported effect of fast thinking on mood could have important applications in both clinical (psychiatric) and normal populations. The authors note that simple manipulations of thought speed could perhaps be used to improve individuals' mood, self-esteem, feelings of creativity, feelings of power, and energy level. Such manipulations could be useful in everyday situations, where people would like a quick mood, energy, or self-esteem boost on a day they are feeling tired or downcast. Manipulations of thought speed might also prove useful as part of treating depression, which is characterized by slow thinking, and also by the absence of things like positive mood, energy, feelings of power, and self-esteem. The authors note that: "The results of our experiment suggest the intriguing possibility that even during moments when people feel stuck having depressed thoughts, interventions that accelerate the speed of such thoughts may serve to boost feelings of positive affect and energy."

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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