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Thought acceleration

Author: Dr Simon Moss


Thought acceleration is the tendency to think very rapidly. The importance of thought acceleration was recently underscored by Pronin and Wegner (2006), who showed that rapid thoughts can improve mood.

Consequences of thought acceleration


Pronin and Wegner (2006) as well as Pronin, Jacobs, and Wegner (2008) demonstrated that rapid thinking can elevate positive affect-such as foster feelings of enthusiasm, excitement, alertness, determination, inspiration, pride, creativity, and happiness-without significantly affective negative affect, such as distress, hostility, or irritability. In these studies, a variety a protocols were implemented to accelerate thought.

To illustrate, in one study, conducted by Pronin, Jacobs, and Wegner (2008), participants were granted 10 minutes to uncover suggestions on how a course could be streamlined. To accelerate thoughts, some participants were told to record as many solutions as possible, regardless of their feasibility. In the control, participants were told to record only solutions that are feasible.

Participants who recorded as many thoughts as possible reported more positive affect. They were more also likely to experience a sense their thoughts were racing. They did not report elevated levels of negative affect, however.

The other studies conducted by Pronin, Jacobs, and Wegner (2008) were similar, except other procedures were utilized to manipulate thought acceleration. In the second study, for example, participants were also asked to uncover suggestions on how a course could be streamlined. However, to manipulate thought acceleration, they were first exposed to the solutions of other participants-either at a rate that was marginally faster than typical reading speed or a rate that was nine times slower.

The third study, conducted by Pronin, Jacobs, and Wegner (2008), was similar, except that all participants were exposed to possible solutions at the same rate. To promote thought acceleration, half of the participants were informed they would then be asked to present possible solutions to individuals who had not heard these recommendations. These participants, thus, could plagiarize these recommendations, and hence experienced the sense that many solutions were crowding their mind. The remaining participants, in contrast, were informed they would then be asked to present possible solutions to individuals who had heard these recommendations. They, hence, could not plagiarize the recommendations.

In the fourth study, undertaken by Pronin, Jacobs, and Wegner (2008), to accelerate the rate of thoughts, participants received simple questions, like "Identify words that rhyme with mite". In the control condition, participants received more difficult questions like "Identify words that rhyme with speck"-that is, questions with fewer answers.

In the fifth study that was conducted by Pronin, Jacobs, and Wegner (2008), participants watched a silent video clip either in fast motion, to accelerate thinking, or at two slower speeds. Their task was to narrate aloud the events that transpired.

Finally, in the sixth study that was conducted by Pronin, Jacobs, and Wegner (2008), as well as in the study that was undertaken by Pronin and Wegner (2006), participants were asked to read sentences aloud. Each letter appeared in sequence. Once a line of text materialized, the letters then disappeared. The sentences appeared on the screen at various rates.

In each of these studies, positive affect, as gauged by self report measures, was elevated when rapid thinking was induced. Self esteem, as measured by questions like "I feel confident about my abilities", also improved. Negative affect, however, was not affected by thought acceleration.

Usually, the relationship between thought acceleration and positive affect was mediated by subjective experiencing of rapid or racing thoughts. In addition, when tested, no differences between reading or thinking at a conventional rate and reading or thinking at a slow rate emerged.

Previous studies have also uncovered results that verify the benefits of thought acceleration. Teasedale and Rezin (1978), for example, showed that depression is more likely to diminish after individuals are asked to repeat letters that appear on a screen, especially if these characters are presented at a rapid rate of 1 every second.

Risk taking

Thought acceleration has also been shown to promote risky intentions and behaviors. In the one study, conducted by Chandler and Pronin (2012), participants had to read text that was presented either rapidly, to promote thought acceleration, or slowly. If participants read this text rapidly, they were subsequently more inclined to invest their money into risky, uncertain alternatives.

In the second study, participants were exposed to movie clips that were presented rapidly or slowly. If participants had been exposed to a rapid sequence of clips, they were more likely to form the intention to engage in unprotected sex, consume illegal drugs, or consider other risky acts.

Theoretical explanations

Pronin, Jacobs, and Wegner (2008) offered three accounts of the mechanisms that might underpin the benefits of thought acceleration. First, thought acceleration might be regarded as a cue that individuals are experiencing a positive mood. Pronin and Jacobs (2007), as cited by Pronin, Jacobs, and Wegner (2008), showed that individuals tend to believe that rapid thinking symbolizes positive moods. Hence, when individuals think rapidly, they might infer that perhaps they are experiencing a positive mood, which can ultimately affect their affective state.

Second, accelerated thinking increases the incidence of novel thoughts at a rapid, or intense, rate. Novel, intense experiences increases the activation of dopaminergic activity (Berridge & Robinson, 2003;; Horvitz, 2002;; Schultz, 2001). Such activity is associated with the subjective experience or reward and pleasure. Consistent with this premise, drugs that facilitate dopaminergic activity, such as cocaine, both instill rewarding mood states and facilitate the acceleration of thoughts (Asghar, Tanay, Baker, Greenshaw, & Silverstone, 2003).

Indeed, Hirt, Devers, and McCrea (2008) demonstrated that individuals often engage in creative thoughts, reflecting upon novel concepts, to improve their mood. Hence, accelerated thinking might activate a more diverse range of concepts, which improves affective states.

Third, rapid thinking instills the sense that individuals can process information fluently. This sense of fluency or ease has been shown to associated with positive mood states (see Winkielman, Schwarz, Fazendeiro, & Reber, 2003).

Alternative theoretical explanations

Although not posited by Pronin, Jacobs, and Wegner (2008), several other mechanisms could underpin the benefits of thought acceleration. From the perspective of personality system interaction theory, thought acceleration might inhibit a cognitive system called intention memory and activate a cognitive system called intuitive behavioral control (e.g., Kazen & Kuhl, 2005;; Kuhl, 2000). In particular, intention memory, which coincides with a decline in positive affect, is activated when individuals refine and modify their intentions--or plans of action. Thought acceleration might preclude such deliberation and thus inhibit intention memory.

Conversely, intuitive behavior control, which coincides with a rise in positive affect, is activated when individuals execute, rather than refine, their intentions. Thought acceleration, which might involve expressing inchoate suggestions for example, activates this system and thus enhances mood.


Thought acceleration could also be ascribed to the distraction of thoughts. Van Dillen and Koole (2007) maintain that cognitive processes that consume working memory often curb dejection and thus improve positive mood. In particular, challenging mental activities utilize working memory and thus disrupt the negative thoughts that dejection or depression can evoke. As these negative thoughts dissipate, mood tends to improve (for a similar perspective, see Teasdale & Rezin, 1978).

Other research has also substantiated the benefits of distraction. For example, in one study, conducted by Strick, Holland, van Baaren, and van Knippenberg (2009), participants observed a series of photographs, some of which were quite upsetting. After each photograph, some pleasant prose, such as a joke or a romantic sentence, was presented. Then, after each prose, participants rated their feelings. Upsetting photographs were not as likely to evoke negative feelings if followed by a joke than if followed by prose that was not humorous but equally positive. According to the researchers, humor demands appreciable cognitive effort to reconcile the underlying conflict, and this cognitive effort distracts attention from negative thoughts.


The concept of thought acceleration can obviously applied to regulate positive affect. That is, individuals who feel dejected could deliberately attempt to record a set of incomplete or infeasible recommendations, to read a passage as rapidly as possible, to reflect upon topics in which they have developed an expertise, or to watch DVDs in fast forward.

According to Pronin, Jacobs, and Wegner (2008), the concept of thought acceleration might also afford some insights into mania. Specifically, racing thoughts often precede episodes of mania. Accordingly, the factors that incite such thought acceleration might represent the principal source of mania.


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Last Update: 6/19/2016