Thinking at Jet Speed

Friday, May 05, 2006

By Wray Herbert

There is a psychology lesson in the new film United 93. This is the first major release about the horrific events of September 11, 2001, and it focuses on the doomed United Airlines flight that ended in a fiery crash in a Pennsylvania field. It concludes with the passengers’ failed attempt to overpower the Islamic terrorists who have commandeered the jet. All in all, a very somber story, and what’s worse, one depicting innocent victims of real-life evil.

So why did I feel so upbeat exiting the theater? It wasn’t because of the passengers’ brief act of desperate heroism at the end. That was too-little-too-late and really only added to the film’s depressing fatalism. No, United 93 was uplifting despite its content, and psychologists have an idea why this might be the case.

In an experiment at Princeton University, psychologist Emily Pronin studied manic thinking. At the extreme such rapid-fire mental processing can be a symptom of a debilitating psychological disorder, but we’ve all at one time or another experienced “racing thoughts” and what Pronin calls the accompanying “sense of wild exhilaration.” She and her Harvard colleague Daniel Wegner wanted to study this connection between pressurized thinking and mood.

To do so, the scientists experimentally manipulated the pace at which participants read a series of statements, some of which were depressing and others of which were upbeat. Then they assessed the subjects’ mood using a standard psychological measure. They found that, regardless of the content of the statements, the participants experienced more elation themselves when they processed the thoughts more quickly. In other words, the speed of cognitive processing overrode the actual meaning of the message.

What this suggests, the authors write in a forthcoming issue of Psychological Science, is that people literally “feel” their own rapid thinking. Pronin believes that such “cognitive feelings” could indeed explain my reaction to United 93: Despite its relentless negativity, the film is a constant bombardment of images, with no time out for rumination. It’s a filmmaking style that might be described as, well, manic.

For more insights into human nature, visit the Association for Psychological Science website at

posted by Wray Herbert @ 9:34 AM


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