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Speed Review: Drunk Tank Pink

Speed Review: Drunk Tank Pink

Speed Review: Drunk Tank Pink

And Other Unexpected Forces that Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave

by Adam Alter

Most of us go through life believing that we are in control of the choices we make—that we think and behave almost independently from the world around us. But as Drunk Tank Pink illustrates, the truth is our environment shapes our thoughts and actions in myriad ways without our permission or even our knowledge. Armed with surprising data and endlessly fascinating examples, Adam Alter addresses the subtle but substantial ways in which outside forces influence us.


How Unseen Forces Impact Your Business

It’s not often that an article in Orthomolecular Psychiatry launches a pop culture fad, but that is, in a sense, exactly what happened in 1979 when professor Alexander Schauss described an experiment in which staring at a piece of cardboard with a certain shade of pink painted on it physically weakened even strong men. Schauss became a minor celebrity, making the rounds of the lecture circuit, and soon, everything from day care centers and psychological wards to locker rooms for visiting football teams were painted with what came to be known as "drunk tank pink" — because it was also used by police stations for the holding cells where they put the drunks being held overnight.

For Adam Alter, assistant professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, drunk tank pink is an example of the unexpected hidden influences or forces (psychologists call them cues) that shape the way we see, think, feel and act. In his new book, Drunk Tank Pink, Alter explores the wide variety of these forces, which arise, he writes, "from three different worlds: the mental world made up of small cues that burrow their way into our heads; the social world that connects us; and the wider physical world that surrounds us." Alter calls these worlds, respectively, the world within us, the world between us and the world around us.

The World Within Us

Alter identifies the three forces that, to use his term, "burrow" their way into our minds and push us to act or think in certain ways: names, labels and symbols. We automatically make assumptions based on names. One academic experiment showed that job applications with African American-sounding names received less response than Caucasian-sounding names.

The other influences are less apparent. Alter describes a study in which Princeton students watched one of two videos: one video showing a fourth grader named Hannah playing at an obviously upper-class school, the other showing the same girl playing at a run-down, working class elementary school. All the students then watched the same video of Hannah answering questions and were asked to judge whether she was intellectually above average, average or below average for children her age. The results: Those who saw "upper-class" Hannah decided she was above average, whereas those who saw "lower-class" Hannah decided she was below average. How we label someone or something, Alter explains, will immediately lead us to assumptions and conclusions no matter what the evidence presents. Remember, the Princeton students saw the exact same video of Hannah answering questions. The only difference was their perception of her background.

The power of symbols is even more surprising. Just turning on a bare light bulb made participants in one study more creative than turning on a bulb in a lampshade or some other kind of lighting. The reason? A bare light bulb is commonly identified with inventing.

The Worlds Between and Around Us

For the category of "the world between us," which describes influences on our thoughts and feelings that emerge from our interactions with others, Alter demonstrates that the mere presence of other people, the characteristics of other people and culture will change what we think or how we act. The power of these forces is perhaps less surprising than the power of the mental forces described in the first part of the book, although the depth of Alter’s research and the variety of examples make for fascinating reading.

In the final section of the book, Alter looks at colors, locations and the combined power of weather and warmth — the forces that come from the world around us. The impact of colors, for example, is more biological than one might imagine. Red agitates the part of the brain that responds to color and also increases heart rates and blood flow. For locations, Alter cites a study that patients with nature outside their windows recovered at a much higher rate than patients with windows that looked onto a brick wall.

Human beings tend to see themselves as rational animals, inputting the facts into our brains and responding appropriately. While intuitively we may know that there are forces that influence us, Alter has brilliantly shone the light on these forces, revealing just how often our thoughts and actions are hijacked.

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