Do people have a general speed?
It seems like people have a general level of speed that applies to much of their activity. Some people, cook, walk, talk, read, and wash the dishes slowly. And some do all those things quickly. If there is a general speed we should expect that the speed at which people do different types of activities should be correlated with each other, though it may be a weak correlation as there are bond to be many other relevant variables for any given task. If they are uncorrelated then we could say that human's don't have a "general speed."
What type of speed are we concerned with for this question?[edit | edit source]
In other words, what kinds of speed would qualify a person as a "fast" or "slow" person. This study on fish illustrates the difficulty in asking this question precisely. The authors write, “fish that were fast to explore [a] novel environment were slower to respond to [a] predator." So are the fish "fast" because they explore quickly, or "slow" because they take longer to respond to a predator? Your answer depends on which kinds of activities you take to be representative of the animal's "general speed."
If humans had a general speed, we'd expect the speed at which humans do many different types of things to be correlated. But exactly what you include in the "many different types of things" matters.
Also the size of the action seems to matter. If someone's nails grow fast or slow does that move the needle on their general speed? It seems not. What about if they meet certain milestones in life either earlier or later? That may be connected to their general speed, but that doesn't seem to be part of what someone means when they say "that person is a slow person."
What we're interested in here is the speed at which we do things where it makes sense for humans to care about the speed in every day language. If you say "he blinks very quickly" (as in, one blink is very fast), it would sound absurd, because we don't really perceive differences in speed of blinks. You also don't really say "he retired quickly." A person might retire young, but not quick. Similarly, let's imagine some people's neurons simply fired faster than other's. That's a type of speed, even one that might be relevant to the other types of speed, but it's not something that human's really care about. So we shouldn't use it as our definition of speed in this question.
I take the processing speed stuff to be something like that. Most people have never heard of processing speed. When they say someone's fast or slow, they wouldn't be thinking about basic neurological processes, though they might underlie the phenomenon.
Status of Question[edit | edit source]
In some areas of the world it seems like there is a common understanding that some people are "slow" or "fast".  The notion also seems like it was once more popular than it is now. A Harvard psychologist in 1930 wrote "There is a popular theory that some people are of a slow, stolid type and others are of a quick, nervous type. The slow type is supposed to plod along persistently with great care for details and accuracy. The quick type, according to this popular theory, works in a more slap-dash fashion, has little regard for details, and is inclined to be inaccurate." 
There is a decent body of scientific work done on this exact question (usually using the label "personal tempo"), but as far as we can tell nothing more recent than about 1964. And the results were inconclusive, that is, some researchers felt their studies supported the existence of personal tempo and some did not.
We have started the literature review but need to continue. We should compile a list of all of the relevant sources and summarize the findings. We can also start to consider possible experiments and reach out to psychologists that may have relevant knowledge on the question.
Existing Research[edit | edit source]
Much of the literature on this question seems use the label "personal tempo" to refer to general speed. We haven't been able to find any direct research on this question after about 1964. It's not clear why (see the related questions section). There are some references to personal tempo in more recent literature, but as far as we can find so far, they are all either in reference to that earlier work, or they have to do with musical studies. This seems to be an artifact of the way that personal tempo was originally studied. Many of the early studies involved subjects tapping a rhythm at what ever speed was most natural to them. It's clear that your speed of tapping was supposed to be an indicator of the speed at which you would do normal tasks (like walking and talking and eating). But more recent mentions of "personal tempo" in research related to music have largely left out the more broad notion of general speed and focused narrowly on just the voluntary tapping speed.
Support for "yes" answer[edit | edit source]
- In paper called Speed as a Personality Trait, they measured a subject's speed in a few different tasks and found moderate correlations. These tasks were largely simple cognitive tasks, similar to those given on processing speed tests. But they then gave an IQ type test (the Army Alpha), and found that the people who were generally slower on these simple tasks were slower to answer questions on the Alpha test, which is a more complex task.
- In a paper called PSYCHOMOTOR EXPRESSION AND PERSONALITY STUDY  they write “(I) It has been shown by studies of social perception (e.g., A. Takala, 1953) that an impression of the characteristic quickness of persons is included in the perception of other people. This impression or rating shows considerable interobserver reliability (Cattell, 1946; A. Takala, 1953) and it is clustered with some other ratings of personality traits”. And also: "In addition to standard tempo tasks, tests of maximum tempo were used. There were significant positive correlations between the ratings of the ‘natural speed’ and the tests of personal tempo, especially in ideomotor and drawing tasks, in subjects aged 13 to 14 years. In younger age groups the correlations were low."
Support for "no" answer[edit | edit source]
- According to this study from 1951 "It was not possible on the basis of one or two isolated speeds to predict speed in other psychological functions." The study measured large movements of trunk and limbs, small movements, drawing with feet, drawing with hands, perception, reaction time, and cognition. They did find correlations within certain groups of activities, but couldn't find a general speed factor.
- "The intercorrelation of speed measurements indicates no unitary speed trait which is characteristic of various spontaneous movements or motor adjustments of an individual."
Indirect Evidence[edit | edit source]
Processing Speed[edit | edit source]
In psychology we do have the concept of Processing Speed, which is essentially the speed at which you can perform simple mental/physical tasks, like pressing a button when you see a light. And people can have very different processing speeds. That's not necessarily the same thing as personal tempo. But it does seem plausible that your processing speed would affect the speed at which you do things in life.
Anecdotal Evidence[edit | edit source]
There are many people claiming to be slow at everything. See this section for a list of online discussions on the topic. Still, it is technically possible that all those people could be mistaken (though it seems unlikely). It would be nice to have actual evidence beyond people's stories.
[edit | edit source]
It's well know that people get slower as they get older (search for the phrase "age related slowing") [needs sources]. If people can have different levels of general speed at different ages, it's very plausible that different people at the same age can have different personal tempos.
Possible Studies[edit | edit source]
- Run a survey experiment to measure people's reported (perceived) general speeds and see if it correlates with processing speed. The problem is that people are pretty bad at adequately filling out surveys and we are also very bad at introspection.
- To account for human failures at introspection, you might want to also conduct an ethnographic exploration. Explore people in their natural environments, time them, and then test their processing speed.
- You can also run a lab experiment giving participants some kind of ecologically valid tasks (e.g. prepare an omelet, wash dishes, etc.) and measure their general speed this way.
If there are hints of its existence, then there will be many things to explore and to control for. We probably won't see a robust categorical phenomenon. If there is something, most probably it will exist on a gradient and it will be affected strongly by individual and cultural differences.
Survey to see if a person is fast or slow[edit | edit source]
It would also be nice to develop some sort of survey that may strongly correlate with general speed. It could have questions like:
- Do people often ask you to slow down when talking?
- Do you tend to walk faster or slower than other people?
- Do you read slowly, quickly, or at an average speed?
Related Questions[edit | edit source]
- What is personal tempo?
- Assuming people do have a general speed, it seems like a reasonable question would be what the relative advantages/disadvantages to being fast and slow are. See: Do slow people have any advantages over fast people?
- Why does it seem like we used to assume that people had a general speed but we don't anymore? Did something happen to change our minds?
- Is there any research correlating processing speed with activities like walking and talking?
References/notes[edit | edit source]
- Tests Used. It was decided that if there were consistent individual differences in speed of work that they should appear even in a simple reaction. For this reason a series of reaction tests were given. The first was a simple reaction with the right hand and the same thing with the left hand, the stimulus being the click of a telegraph key. The second was a choice reaction, the directions being Downloaded by [University of Montana] at 20:36 08 April 2015 SPEED AS AtlPERSONALlTY TRAIT 291 to use the right hand if an R appeared in the stimulus box, and the left if an L appeared. The third was a choice reaction involving judgment. The subject was required to read a simple sentence and, if the sentence was true, he used his right hand, if false, his left. The fourth was similar; if a simple sum was correct, the subject used his right hand, if wrong, his left. The fifth was to say into a voice box the opposite of the word which appeared on the stimulus card. The sixth was to read aloud the word which the card represented. The seventh was to say the last word read as soon as the click was heard. After a practice period with the simple and choice reactions, this series was repeated 10 times and the trials averaged. The timing was done by means of a string galvanometer attached to the apparatus and calibrated before and after each experiment. Results r alidity of the individual differences. The differences between the subjects studied were great enough to indicate a real difference in speed of work for all types of reactions. The times for the simple reactions ranged from 134 a to 348 u; for the choice reactions, from 360 tr to 605 u; the reactions to sentences, from 1110 u to 4000 u; the reactions to sums, from 1200 a to 6520 u; the simple vocal reactions, from 200 o to 755 u; the reading reactions, from 614 u to 1160 u; and the giving of opposites, from 933 a to 1480 a, These differences were considered great enough to differentiate the subjects in every case. Consistency of individual differences. Intercorrelations of these rate tests ranged from .11 between sentences and simple touch reactions to .81 between the opposites and the reading reaction, with an average correlation of ,45.
- The correlation between the rate on the Alpha, thus determined, and the speed ranks was .486.
- Rimoldi, H. J. A. (1951). Personal tempo. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 46(3), 283–303. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0057479