We live in a fast-paced world, and many of us experience pressure to get things done as quickly as possible to meet strict deadlines and handle growing workloads. But, as you may be aware, faster does not always mean better.
Cognitive science research frequently deals with the dynamic between speed and accuracy and how an ‘improvement’ in one of these areas often requires the other to suffer. Simply put, doing something faster makes you more prone to errors, and focusing on accuracy will make you slower. Obvious, right? Even so, there is a large body of work that is set out to understand exactly what is going on in the brain to cause this speed-accuracy trade-off.
In cognitive science, we can use something called mental chronometry to try to understand how our brain receives, processes, and responds to information. Mental chronometry, or mental ‘time measurement,’ is based on the principle that our mental processes take time to be carried out. This means it takes a certain amount of time for information to go from your senses to your brain, for your brain to interpret the information it is receiving, and then for you to generate a response based on that information. The amount of time it takes you to react to something is the sum of these different stages.
This has huge implications for research as we can compare the speed of responding between two groups on a task to see how different conditions impact the efficiency of mental processes. For instance, we can compare reaction times from a group of people diagnosed with depression to a group of non-depressed individuals to see how the disorder might impact attention and the time to respond to stimuli.
But, as indicated above, it’s very important to consider the accuracy of responses when evaluating performance. As we already learned, processing the information from your environment takes time. How much time you spend collecting information to inform your response is based on a fluctuating threshold. If you are interested in making a faster response, your information threshold will be lower to shorten your reaction time, but you will have less information to inform your response. If you are interested in making the most accurate response, you will want to wait for as much information as possible to be generated to guide your decision, meaning you will have a higher threshold. This is the speed-accuracy trade-off.
Here’s an example of what I mean when I talk about thresholds and collecting information. Imagine you are trying to identify the object in the image below. When your brain first starts processing the image, it’s grainy and low-resolution, but as time passes it becomes more and more clear what you are looking at. Someone trying to respond as quickly as possible, who has a low threshold for how much information they need before responding, might make a guess when the image is at the first or second stage. However, they are much more likely to make an incorrect guess than someone with a higher threshold for the information required, who waits until the object has been processed to a point where they can be confident it is an apple.
Lots of different factors can impact your threshold level for how much information you require before responding, but an important one is whether you want to be responding quickly or accurately, as there are situations where one is advantageous over the other. Consider a court reporter who has to transcribe everything said in a courtroom. This person must emphasize speed when typing to make sure they don’t miss anything, and any mistakes generated can be corrected later on. On the other hand, let’s consider a surgeon, where a mistake could have fatal consequences. If I had to choose between a doctor with the fastest appendix removal record and the doctor with the fewest mistakes during surgery, I’d be going for the slower and more accurate doctor.
Image source: Pixabay