Fast Thinking = Risky Business

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This summer Felix Baumgartner will attempt to break the world record for highest free fall. While plummeting from 120,000 feet (or 23 miles) above the earth, he will break the sound barrier and endure temperatures of -70°F. Some worry he may be ripped in two. The only thing protecting him from the crushing pressure of the earth’s atmosphere is a specially designed suit. One hole and he practically evaporates.

As someone who has never had any desire to sky dive, the prospect of willingly throwing myself into an alien abyss is both terrifying and idiotic. I can’t even stomach a roller coaster or even a steep hill in a car.

But for many people, taking such risks is a walk in the park.  I have a friend who has skydived about 180 times. And he’s not done yet. So what makes some of us more apt to take such leaps?

A recent study, published in Psychological Science, by two Princeton professors says those who think fast may be more prone to risky behavior, according to the Association for Psychological Science. And in this plugged-in age, most minds are racing on a daily basis, meaning many of us may be making risky business more than just a part of our Netflix cue.

In the study participants were classified as fast or slow thinkers, depending on how quickly they read. They were then asked to perform the Balloon Analog Risk Task (BART), according to Psychology Today. In the test they see a balloon on a computer screen.  They can inflate the balloon by pushing a button and each time they do, they receive 5 cents. The participants can keep the money they earn, but if the balloon pops they lose whatever they’ve accumulated.

The fast thinkers pumped the balloon more often than the slow thinkers. “On the positive side, this risky behavior allows these participants to make more money on each balloon that they did not pop,” Psychology Today reports.  “On the negative side, they also popped more balloons than the slow thinkers.” It appears my aversion to hurling myself out of a plane may relate to my tendency to take my time with a good book…though I’m not sure I’m ready to accept the label “slow thinker.”

Another test had participants watch a movie in which the scenes changed at different rates – faster for the fast thinkers and slower for slow thinkers. Afterwards, they were asked to complete a questionnaire in which they rated how likely they were to engage in risky behaviors, like unprotected sex and drinking games, while indicating whether they thought such behaviors would get them in trouble.

The fast thinkers were willing to engage in more risky behaviors than the slow thinkers, and thought they’d be less likely to get in trouble.

So what does all this mean? Perhaps it’s time to put down that iPhone and take a moment to smell the flowers…well at least until the next text message comes through.

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