The Fastest Way to Get Smarter is Actually Simple

5 min read

Education & Career Trends: October 4, 2022
Curated by the Knowledge Team of  ICS Career GPS


Slowing down your thinking whenever you are able to is the fastest way to get smarter.

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Let’s talk about one of the most fascinating studies conducted in psychology. For many years in an office, the system of “Honesty Box” was used by the employees to pay for their tea or coffee. They would help themselves to the beverage of their choice and drop as much money as they wanted to in the box. A list of suggested prices was posted on the wall.

One day, a banner poster was displayed right above the price list. This was done without any warning or explanation. Every week for ten weeks, a new image was posted on this banner;

  • Either of flowers, or
  • Eyes that appeared to look directly at the employee.

The results were staggering.

The average contribution was almost three times during “eye weeks” than in “flower weeks.”

The conclusion of this study was that even a symbolic reminder of ‘being looked at’ leads to improved behaviour. Everyone’s behaviour improves when they know someone is watching.

In ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’, Daniel Kahneman talks about how we have two types of thinking: system 1 and system 2.

  • System 1 is responsible for fast thinking. For example — a driver hits the break when someone suddenly comes in front of him without making a conscious decision to do so.
  • System 2 is responsible for slow thinking. For example, a driver carefully manoeuvres his car into a narrow parking space looking at both sides.

Our brains must have come up with such a system to increase efficiency. We cannot take a lot of time to make every decision in our life; hence, fast thinking helps us make decisions where quickness is needed. And slow thinking is mobilised when we need to make a decision analytically and critically.

Another thing you need to know about these systems of thinking is that —

  • Fast thinking is ubiquitous. The initial thoughts and actions you respond with to any situation are borne out of fast thinking.
  • Slow thinking is not ubiquitous. Slow thinking needs to be mobilised when fast thinking is not able to come up with a solution.

What does this have to do with the aforementioned study?

In the office, when an employee’s mind was subjected to a picture of eyes, two thought sequences are possible:

  • Fast thinking: Eyes → Someone is looking → I need to improve my behaviour.
  • Slow thinking: Eyes → Is someone looking? → No, these eyes don’t belong to an actual person → It’s just a poster → I don’t actually need to improve my behaviour.

The utilisation of heuristics:

Fast thinking is possible only when it skips some information. When you want to be fast, you have to take shortcuts. To think fast, our minds also take such mental shortcuts or what we call heuristics. These rule-of-thumb strategies shorten decision-making time and allow people to function without constantly stopping to think about their next course of action. And when our mind takes such shortcuts, it might miss some information and make seemingly wrong decisions.

While contributing to the honesty box, fast thinking led to the decision. It was a very minor decision, so the employee’s mind did not feel that slow thinking needed to be mobilised.

However, if slow thinking was mobilised, no one would pay more than they would otherwise just because a picture of eyes were looking at them.

Rational decision-making requires slow thinking:

In any given situation, the initial thoughts and actions are born out of fast thinking. These thoughts come fast and are effective when speed is needed; however, since they are fast, they are less rational. Fast thinking skips a lot of information and sends out thoughts without considering all pieces of information.

If, however, these initial thoughts and actions are ignored and suppressed, slow thinking follows. More rational thoughts will come to your mind. These thoughts take birth after having considered increasingly more pieces of information. This is why we take a lot of time while making important decisions, carefully weighing every factor before reaching a decision we feel is accurate.

In conclusion, what is the fastest way to get smarter?

Simply, learn to slow down.

The case is not that most people cannot have smart and rational thoughts. It is just that they don’t have the patience to wait for smarter thoughts to flow in. There is more impatience and less attention span; hence, taking action based on initial thoughts.

Fast thinking has its place when it is trained. Like when driving a car, or an emergency medicine doctor who needs to take immediate action. In such cases, trusting your instincts is actually helpful.

However, in many areas of your life, your fast thinking is not adequately trained. This is why slowing down whenever you are able to is the fastest way to get smarter.

Learn to reject your initial thoughts when you have an untrained instinct. Let the smarter thoughts flow in. Act on them, and watch your intelligence grow.


Have you checked out yesterday’s blog yet?

Newer Avenues in Clinical Research


(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the above mentioned article are those of the author(s). They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of ICS Career GPS or its staff.)

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