We don't automatically admire quick thinking-it can mean glibness and superficiality, we may have noticed. But we do associate it with intelligence, these days more than ever. Lightning calculators must surely be smart, the occasional idiot savant notwithstanding. Quick-witted people, the mentally agile, those who can think on their feet-we may not always choose them to be captain or president, but we tend to respect them. We have heard of unhurried qualities like wisdom and sagacity, but we think nonetheless that the students who plod through laborious calculations cannot be quite as smart as their comrades who snap their fingers and know the answer. Some modern businesses have built this assumption into their hiring procedures. "At least in industries like high-tech and finance, quick-wittedness rules," observes Nicholas Lemann, author of The Big Test. "Some companies, such as Microsoft or D. E. Shaw, the stock-picking firm, are particularly known for hiring on the basis of mind speed and for peppering job applicants with SAT-like questions in interviews so as to bring the quality into high relief." Much of life has become a game show, our fingers perpetually poised above the buzzer. "This is not a state of affairs that would, at most times and places in history, have been considered normal and healthy," Lemann adds.

  • Interesting commentary from the urban-legends point of view on the “we only use n percent of our brains” idea. And another take on it.
  • Nicholas Lemann’s fine essay is “A Fool’s Goal.