Slow Is Not Dumb: Research Debunks The "Speed Equals Intelligence" Myth

April 27th, 2014 13 Comments Other

Speed of learning

“There’s more to life than simply increasing its speed.” – Mahatma Gandhi

The dictionary definition of “slowness” is “the quality of lacking intelligence or quickness of mind,” and there seems to be a general consensus that if someone is slow, they are probably not very bright.

But considering that intelligence is made up of different cognitive abilities and skills, and speed of processing is just one aspect of it, assuming that someone is less intelligent merely because they are slower is simply unfair.

Research has found no consistent link between speed and intelligence, and in fact, some research even suggests that taking extra time to learn can result in information being processed more deeply, which leads to greater accuracy down the line.

For instance, think back to some of the exams you took in your school days: there was probably always at least one kid who threw down their pen triumphantly halfway through the allotted time and then sat there twiddling their thumbs while everyone else sweated over the remaining questions.

While you probably fretted about your slowness at the time, a recent study from Ohio State University shows that the average time students take to complete an exam is not associated with the average exam score.

As neuroscientist Rogier Kievit from the University of Amsterdam notes in a Q&A with Psychology Today; mental speed is a necessary part of intelligence, but it isn’t, on its own, a sufficient indicator of high intelligence.

“[Speed] is only one element of intelligence, and singular explanations haven’t fared well historically,” explains Kievit.

“For instance, in several mental tasks, including some concerning working memory and mental speed, we lose, badly, to chimpanzees on both speed and accuracy. And in terms of the cortex-to-body ratio, humans are behind several species of rodents and some species of fish.

The lesson to take from this is that there are, simply, no simple answers to understanding intelligence.”

In one study, researchers from New York University found that students who had to work harder (and longer) to read a text ended up processing the information more deeply, and as a result, answered subsequent questions more accurately.

Another experiment conducted by Princeton researchers showed that when fonts were made more difficult to read, and volunteers took longer to work through a text, they recalled more of it later on.

So what’s the takeaway for those of us who need a little extra time to process and store new information?

In short, don’t let speed get in the way of good learning. Fast does not always equal smart, and slow doesn’t necessarily mean stupid; it all comes down to how you learn best.


Marianne Stenger is a London-based freelance writer and journalist with extensive experience covering all things learning and development. She’s particularly interested in the psychology of learning and how technology is changing the way we learn. Her articles have been featured by the likes of ABC Education, The Huffington Post, Lifehacker, and Psych Central. Follow her on Twitter @MarianneStenger.

13 Responses

  1. Nick says:

    Hi. The link that it is supposed to show no consistent link between speed and intelligence leads to a dictionary. I’d be interested to know the research that you’re referring to in this article. Thanks.

  2. James says:

    I would like to say that in many respects i’m not the fastest learner, however when i get it down I never forget how to do it and i’m usually the best of what it is i’m doing, if that makes any sense lol !

    • shah says:

      james, i am also the same.but i dont know is it good or bad?

    • Uyen Nguyen says:

      Well I’m sure it’s a good thing James, you learn differently and that’s not a bad thing. Take your time and no need to rush. You’ll be at the destination eventually, don’t worry. Don’t emphasize speed to something much bigger that it is.

  3. Lona says:

    I am a slow learner too and that made me feel very stupid the first time I entered university. Everybody tells me that I have to learn fast since I am at Uni, but I can’t. I prefer to learn slowly so that I understand more deeply what I am studying.
    Learning slowly has always been my best method to learn things at first time and never forget them, which helps me understand easily the tough subjects when I undersand deeply the basics.
    I always used to to ask myself either I am normal or no, cause no one could understand me!!…
    Now, I don’t care if they do, what I care about is that I understand myself cause I am the only one who understand myself, and that helps me to move on and make sure I do things the best way I can.

    • Saga Briggs says:

      Hi Lona, thanks for your comment! We’re glad you found the article useful. Learning slowly is a great way to retain more information. Don’t doubt yourself – do what works for you!

  4. I too am a slow learner. As a matter of fact, some times it’s days or even weeks to realize, what someone told me. That bothers me some. But learning is slow paced too, but like the article says once you get it you sometimes understand more in depth than someone who learned it quickly.

    The website I built was meant as a notes storage for myself and to make Microsoft Excel easier for other people to learn. This is what I am talking about when I say I learn more in depth by learning slowly. I keep building on my knowledge daily and I have found a job that loves my capabilities in Microsoft Excel. I teach my boss stuff about the program now along with others who are interested in learning it.

    Oh, did you find a way to do something better than me? Good because everyone’s outlook on something is different. For instance one person says: 1+2=3 while another says 1+1+1=3 and yet another says 1×3=3. None of the solutions are wrong, it’s just how you interpret them.

    The main thing in life is treat people nicely, no matter their mental speediness. One day all of your knowledge will fail.

    On my dad’s side of the family, most had dementia. I’m sure I will get it too then everything I have learned will be lost myself.

    But how did I treat others and how did others treat me will last a lot longer.

  5. Mark Emerson says:

    if speed is not a factor in testing ones ability or intelligence to recal knowledge and use it then why are exams time limited? exams were the bane of all my schooling which is why i failed most of them. class time was too fast paced and i couldnt keep up and assimilate like other kids in the class. focus is always placed on ones speed. fact

    • truthmonger says:

      Absolutely correct. Nobody cares how brilliant you are if you’re always last to the finish line. Those who produce more will always win over those who produce *better*. Personally I’ve always appreciated someone who does good work even if its takes longer. I’d rather receive a more complete and thoughtful answer rather than being handed a loose pile of hastily collected facts (particularly when its obvious there was little time devoted to confirming those facts). Same goes for goods or services: assuming the costs are the same I’ll choose the more reliable and user-friendly solution over the one that always leaves you wanting, even if I have to wait a bit longer on the superior outcome.

    • Nate says:

      Mark, It’s a flawed, one size fits all model. The fact that the student feels they have to assimilate is a monumental downfall. Unfortunately, I believe society will have to erode significantly before the current model is abandoned. Sir Ken Robinson gave a couple of very intriguing TED talks. I highly recommend you view them.

  6. Aya Rahima says:

    i am completely in awe for finding someone who spoke my exact same thoughts about this trait, slowness. i am convinced because, from personal experiences, the time i took to process down something never lead to me to a wrong answer

  7. Dumbhead says:

    I always blame myself for realizing things as fast as I should. I guess there’s a difference between “not realizing” fast enough, and “learning” slowly, but still, this article was comforting.

    For example, it will take a while for me to realize what’s so funny about some joke. Or to realize what somebody meant in a argument they were making. Better late than never, though! It could be worse. I’m also trying to work on the speed of my brain, too, through thinking and realizing and recalling memories. The funny thing about my memory is that it’s really good… and really bad. I can never remember what I need to remember, and yet I can recall small, unimportant details from when I was toddler. I remember looking up YouTube as a toddler and writing “YouTub” instead.

  8. Katerhodes says:

    Nice to meet you all who have run into the same unhelpful dogma as I grew up with in the 60’s and 70’s. How do I feel today after always running out of time on my tests and almost failing close to every course? Not great, it really did a number on my self esteem. Only now am I coming to terms with my real intelligence slow as it is. it is far superior to many of my colleagues who never give me the credit I deserve.
    I could have accomplished so much more in my life had someone recognized my intelligence rather than writing me off.
    Thanks for the article.

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