In his new book Drunk Tank Pink Adam Alter, an assistant professor of psychology and marketing at NYU, explains how subtle cues, such as the sound of someone's name or the color of a room, can influence behaviors and thoughts. Alter discusses the book, and his research on the psychology of decision-making.
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IRA FLATOW, HOST:
If you're looking for a date on Match.com, does it matter what color your shirt is in your profile picture? Or if you're trying to make a partner, you want to make partner at a law firm, yeah, does having a hard-to-pronounce last name hurt your chances? Does staring at a pile of money, even phony Monopoly money, make you more selfish?
These are just a few examples of the fascinating research in the new book "Drunk Tank Pink." It's a look sort of below the surface of how forces, how they - we aren't aware, we aren't even aware they affect us, how we think, how we behave, how we feel. And as it turns out, a lot of what we do or what's done to us has to do with factors flying below our conscious radar screen.
So much for free will, huh? Well, we'll talk about it with Adam Alter. He is assistant professor of marketing and psychology at the Stern School of Business at NYU. His new book, as I mentioned, is called "Drunk Tank Pink." It also has a subtitle to it, "And Other Unexpected Forces that Shape How We Think, Feel and Behave." Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.
ADAM ALTER: Thanks for having me, Ira.
FLATOW: Wow, I mean those questions about - why the name? It's an interesting name, "Drunk Tank Pink." Why the name of the book?
ALTER: "Drink Tank Pink" is a bright, Pepto-Bismol, bubblegum shade of pink, and psychologists stumbled on its miraculous effects, they called it miraculous, in the late '70s and early '80s. And they found that it - first of all they found that it calmed children down in schools in Canada. They were trying to work out how they could improve behavior.
And then they took it further, and they wondered whether it might also calm down some of the most aggressive people we come across, very aggressive prisoners. And that's what they did. They painted the inside of drunk tanks or jail cells with this pink color, and they found that they were much calmer.
FLATOW: Sure enough. We're going to come back and talk lots more about "Drunk Tank Pink." Our number, 1-800-989-8255. I know you have lots of questions about this, talking with Adam Alter, assistant professor of marketing and psychology at Stern School of Business. "Drunk Tank Pink" coming up after this break. Stay with us.
I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.
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FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking with Adam Alter, assistant professor of marketing and psychology at Stern School of Business at NYU. His new book is called "Drunk Tank Pink." And you said it originally arrived from painting the drunk tank, the jail cells, with pink colors to calm down the residents, and it worked.
ALTER: It worked. There was pretty good evidence that over a nine-month period, the very aggressive prisoners at a naval prison in Seattle were much better behaved when they emerged 15 minutes after being put in the pink drunk tank.
FLATOW: Wow, and you have found a whole bunch of other kinds of stuff that influence us subconsciously that we don't know about, for example our names.
ALTER: Yeah, our names influence us in all sorts of ways. I've shown - you mentioned in the opening about lawyers, that they rise up the legal hierarchy more quickly when they have simpler names. And some colleagues of mine and I looked at how quickly they rose up based on their names, and we found that independently of how foreign the name was or how unusual it was, if you could pronounce the name more easily, these lawyers in the middle part of their careers were more likely to become partners more quickly.
FLATOW: You mentioned two urology experts, Dr. Splatt(ph) and Dr. Whedon(ph).
FLATOW: How often does that happen?
ALTER: Surprisingly often. If you look on Wikipedia, there's a page devoted entirely to aptronyms. Aptronyms - A-P-T-R-O-N-Y-M - those are cases where this has happened, where people happen to live up to their names. And we've known about this since about 1994, when someone wrote into the New Scientist magazine and said I've noticed this, and I think we should call it nominative determinism, the tendency for a name to drive outcomes.
FLATOW: What about the question I asked about the color of your shirt on your Facebook page or something?
ALTER: Yeah, there's again surprisingly strong evidence that if you - this is true for men and women on dating websites, that if you switch your shirt but have an otherwise identical photo across time, when you're wearing a red shirt rather than a whole host of other colors - blue, red, green, yellow - you will attract much more interest.
So you'll get many more emails. People even say that they're more willing to spend more on dates, if they're going on dates with you. A man will say about a woman that she's worth more on the date, he'll spend more on her if she's wearing a red shirt.
FLATOW: Just from seeing the picture online?
ALTER: Nothing else is different. They'll even pick up hitchhikers. Hitchhikers will be picked up more if they are wearing red shirts.
FLATOW: I want to get back to the pink thing because thinking pink for a while, I remember reading your book, you also said that weightlifters can't lift as much - athletes don't perform as well if they look at the color pink as opposed to something like maybe red or blue. That's hard to believe.
ALTER: It is hard to believe. I spoke to the researcher who came up with the name for drunk tank pink, the original color, and he told me that in one of his original demonstrations, he was up on stage with Mr. California, who was a weightlifter, and he was lifting the weight quite comfortably. It was a big weight; the audience was very impressed.
And as soon as they held up this pink cardboard in front of him, he said I can't lift it anymore. And to snap him out of it, they had to show him a blue piece of cardboard, which undid the effect.
FLATOW: Wow. Let's go to Ross(ph) in Mount Dora. Hi, Ross.
ROSS: Hey, as a hypnotherapist and psychiatric physician assistant, I use color quite a bit with my patients. And since hypnosis, you're accessing the subconscious mind, one way is to have them choose which colors they think are most calming or whatever and have them then anchor that to the behaviors that we're doing.
Other times I'll find that I'll give people the suggestion, for instance, that green or blue, if I'm treating them for an anxiety disorder or a fear, a phobia, and say anytime you see this color, you feel more calm, relaxed, peaceful, serene.
FLATOW: So colors do work for him. Thanks for calling, Ross. Yeah.
ALTER: Yeah, absolutely.
FLATOW: Can we make use of that in our own lives, surround ourselves with colors the way we want to feel?
ALTER: I think a big part of the effect - so part of it is biological, and that's the argument for the color red. And part of I think is based on association. So if you happen to like the color blue, as - blue is actually the world's most popular color, across a whole lot of countries, except where they associate blue with death and sadness.
And I think the associations drive a lot of this, and therefore if you have patients who happen to like a particular color, there's no reason not to make use of those associations.
FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. You've written about name fluency and the stock market.
ALTER: Yes, we did a study in 2006 where we looked at how stocks performed when they first entered the market following their IPOs, their initial public offerings. And we found that those with simpler names, names that were easier to pronounce, and even stocks who have ticker codes, that have ticker codes that are pronounceable, so stocks attract a ticker code when they first enter the market, and some investors will refer to them by that code.
So Google is GOOG. That's pronounceable and therefore fluent. But others are much less fluent. So you could have GGOP, and that wouldn't be pronounceable. Those stocks tend to do much more poorly in the first week in particular after they emerge on the market.
FLATOW: And also you said it was - names are important when it comes to naming storms and hurricanes.
ALTER: Yes, there's a tendency for us to identify with our own names quite strongly. And one effect that we've known about for quite some time is that if you ask people what their favorite initials are, they will say that the initials of their names, their first and last name, are often favored.
So you would like I and F, and I would like A because my first name and my last name begin with A. And applying this, some researchers showed a few years ago that people are also more likely to donate more to hurricane aid relief when the hurricane happens to share their initial.
So after Hurricane Katrina, Kens and Kims were more likely to donate. After Hurricane Mitch, Marks and Mindys were more likely to donate. And the argument there is we can make use of this. We can make use of it by consulting the demographic chart of names in the U.S. and find that J names are very common, especially among males and M names among females.
And if you look at the distribution, since we know that people donate more when they share the hurricane's initial. We could - I looked - did a quick calculation, and it looks like we could attract over a 10-year period about between $500 and $700 million more in aid if we picked the right names.
FLATOW: And so that's how you can make use of knowing the name game.
ALTER: Yeah, that's at a very macro policy level. I think you can make serious use of this. It costs nothing to change the names of hurricanes, and yet you have these huge magnified effects that are far greater than this tiny intervention, and that's how powerful I think some of these effects are.
FLATOW: But is that why you study it, or are you just interested in the associations?
ALTER: Yeah, it began with an intrinsic interest. I find this stuff fascinating. And I think understanding humans and the way we think and why we think the way we do I think is very interesting. But I did come across a whole lot of interesting applications along the way, and I think they're also very worthwhile.
FLATOW: We're talking with the author of "Drunk Tank Pink," Adam Alter, and other - the subtitle "Other Unexpected Forces that Shape How We Think, Feel and Behave." What are some of the other unexpected forces that are...
ALTER: There are many. So in the book I talk about nine forces. Some of them are very narrow, things like names. Some of them are much broader, like the weather or colors that are in the physical world around us. One of the ones that I find most interesting is the effect of nature on subduing or as a barrier against stress.
So we find that people who are in hospital who are recovering from illness, if they happen to have a view that's natural, they look at a stand of trees outside their windows. They will recover more quickly than if they're looking at a non-natural - a wall or something like that.
FLATOW: Remember the poem "The Last Leaf," or the story, that story "The Last Leaf"?
ALTER: Exactly, exactly. That stuff really matters for people. And kids who experience bullying or other difficulties when they're young tend to do much better in dealing with that stress when they play in nature when they have potted plants in the home. All of that sort of stuff seems to really matter for people.
FLATOW: So you're saying we don't pay enough attention to these influences in our lives.
ALTER: Yeah, I think that's right for two reasons. One is that we could harness them for the good, and that's - the example with the hurricanes illustrates that. And I think other times these effects can lead us down a path that we don't want to take. And if we know that they're there, sometimes, not always but sometimes, we can deal with them.
FLATOW: Let's go to the phones. Let's go to Patrick(ph) in Iowa City. Hi Patrick.
PATRICK: Hello, Ira, great show as always.
FLATOW: Thank you.
PATRICK: Just an interesting aside, the University of Iowa's famous football coach Hayden Fry was a psychology major before he got into coaching. And he had the visitors' locker room painted drunk tank pink at Iowa, and to this day it remains somewhat of a part of his legacy that he did this, and Bo Schembechler from Michigan used to cover the walls with newspaper to avoid the psychological effects of it on the football teams.
But it was a very fun part of the lore and history of the University of Iowa football program that we have these - this locker room still painted drunk tank pink at the University of Iowa in the visitors' locker room.
FLATOW: A great story. You know about that, Adam?
ALTER: I do, yeah. It was one of the effects that I heard about early on. This researcher who came up with the color and realized how powerful it was spoke to Hayden Fry and...
FLATOW: So what is their own locker room painted? Do you know? Patrick, do you know what the home team is painted?
PATRICK: It's, of course, done in the most stylish of ways so that it gives the University of Iowa the best feeling they can have about being up-to-date and high-tech. So, of course, we're taking care of our own lads as we would like to see them treated in the 21st century, with the best and the most able of minimalist, but very, very nice accommodations. Iowa has - it's got a very nice football program in terms of priorities. But one other thought I might add, I was curious about this whole concept of - of the effects of our reality and how we determine colors.
And is there anything you can speak to about the notion of the neurological determination of color as it pertains to just the notion of reality and how we see things? I don't know if that's in your area, but I've always been fascinated by that notion that we all do see a drunk tank pink as a people...
FLATOW: Yeah, yeah.
PATRICK: ...and is there any cultural differences in color? (unintelligible). Thank you.
FLATOW: Good question.
PATRICK: Thank you.
FLATOW: Thanks for calling.
ALTER: Yeah. It is a very interesting question, and I think it's most clear when you talk about color. I'm colorblind, so I know for a fact that I see the world differently from other people. But the question about whether people who have perfect color vision all see the world the same way has endured for a long time, and it's a very difficult question to answer. We have the same basic apparatus. We have the same eyes and the same brains, most of us. And therefore, it seems that we probably experience the world the same way, but it's very difficult...
ALTER: ...to confirm that.
FLATOW: And the question of why does pink and not any other color bring down that...
FLATOW: ...weakness, you know, make you relax...
ALTER: Yeah. So...
FLATOW: ...less stressful?
ALTER: Right. It's a good question. Why pink, rather than another color? And, in fact, the physical properties of pink are no different from red. It's just a watered-down version of that. It's - obviously, you add a bit of white, and the red becomes pink. So one argument is maybe it's just the association we have with pink.
FLATOW: And you said red is the strongest color. Is that why we see so many team uniforms red, you know?
ALTER: I don't know if they're doing it consciously.
FLATOW: Red Sox, the Cardinals, the Reds, you know.
FLATOW: ...you don't think - maybe it is subconsciously they're doing that.
ALTER: Maybe it is. Occasionally, you hear of a manager - we talked about Hayden Fry at the University of Iowa. He knew what he was doing there. And sometimes, coaches have a pretty good instinct for this stuff, and so it's possible that they do capitalize on these effects.
FLATOW: What about people interacting with each other? What have you learned about that?
ALTER: Well, humans are social animals. We distinguish humans from other lower-order animals because - by the extent to which we need to interact with other people and how important that is for us. So the fact that we are in the presence of other people is very important. When you put people in social isolation for an extended period of time, it's almost as profound as depriving them of oxygen or water or food. They really struggle with that. So...
FLATOW: Can it be permanent damage to them?
ALTER: There's some evidence that a lot of people struggle to come back from prolonged social isolation. It changes how they see the world. And they really do struggle to reintegrate into society afterwards.
FLATOW: Talking with Adam Alter, author of "Drunk Tank Pink," on SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow. Are there things yet to be discovered in this area of interaction, do you think? What would you like to really look into now?
ALTER: I think that's an excellent question, and I don't think - I think part of the beauty of this sort of science is, first of all, that it's so young. There's still so much to be discovered. A lot of the effects that I talked about in the book are cutting-edge, the things that we've only just recognized recently. And I wish I had the answer to that question, because then I would jump straight on that - right on that issue, and I'd start doing all the research into it, but I'm not sure where we're going.
FLATOW: Well, there is a chapter of your book dealing with labels, and you show three faces, and this is very visual for radio.
FLATOW: So we have a diagram, actually, on our website. In the three faces, there's one man with black features, one with what we'd consider Caucasian features and one sort of in the middle. It looks like they have different skin tones. But it turns out, it's actually the same in all three. And you can go to our website at sciencefriday.com/pink and see this illustration. And that's very surprising, when you look at those, that they are actually the same skin tone.
ALTER: It is very surprising. We just assume, looking at the facial features, we've so strongly come to associate certain facial features with darker or lighter skin, that it's almost impossible to shake the illusion that these three faces that are exactly the same in tone are actually different in tone, that the black-looking face should be darker and that the white-looking face should be lighter.
FLATOW: And people really are influenced by this when you show them the faces.
ALTER: They are. It's very difficult to shake. As you said, people can have a look at the example on the website, and that the argument then is that shapes how we - even the physical properties of the world change based on the labels we give to various targets in the world and various items in the world.
FLATOW: So can you shape your own label? Can you become a better label? Is it possible to do that?
ALTER: I think so. We talked about names earlier. I think you can rename yourself.
ALTER: There's no rule against it. You can...
FLATOW: You can get rid of Ira. That's for sure.
ALTER: You could come up with a nickname, if you wanted to do that. You could change your name and then - absolutely. I think you can change your label as much or as little as you like, and this book gives you a sense of how that might be helpful.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. One of the really interesting parts of the book, I thought, was how labeling children in school can really affect how they do, even if that label is arbitrary.
FLATOW: Tell us about that.
ALTER: Yeah. This is a classic study. It's one of the most famous studies in all of social psychology, and it was done in the '60s. And some students took a series of tests, and then they were randomly allocated to different classes at a school. And some of the students were randomly picked out of this bunch. They weren't any different from the group at large, but they were randomly picked to be described as academic bloomers. And they were - but their teachers for the next year were told, these kids are special. They were about to bloom, and you've got some special kids in your class, and, you know, do your best to foster that sort of blooming behavior.
And the other teachers were told about the other kids, that they were just normal kids, and it was a standard classroom. A year later, when they looked at what these labels had done - remember, these kids were actually the same. A year later, the kids who were labeled bloomers were performing 10 to 15 I.Q. points above...
ALTER: ...the kids who were not labeled that way.
FLATOW: Wow. So, wow. So they - how they felt better actually influenced how they were performing.
ALTER: The argument is that the teachers interpreted their behaviors differently.
ALTER: So, yeah.
FLATOW: Before the break, a question from David O'Lear(ph), which is what I was thinking: What do the reactions to color imply for those of you who, like yourself, are color blind? You don't see red? You don't see red the same way?
ALTER: Not very well.
FLATOW: So that's the most powerful color...
FLATOW: ...and you don't see it.
ALTER: That's right. Yeah. Well, that's - it's a good question. And I think in the - going back to "Drunk Tank Pink" briefly, one of the researchers has argued that it doesn't matter if you're color blind, that it's something about the property of the waves as they hit your retina, color blind or not, that's translated into certain neural activity, and it doesn't matter. There's not a lot of great evidence for that. But I think when you can (unintelligible). The ones that are biological, I think they probably still hold the color blind people, to some extent.
ALTER: The ones that are about associations - if I'm not seeing red in the first place, I won't have the association between red and whatever those characteristics are. So then it probably won't hold for me.
FLATOW: Wow. It seems like you guys are ripe for more investigations.
FLATOW: We're going to take a break and come back and talk more with Adam Alter, author of "Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces that Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave." Our number: 1-800-989-8255. You can tweet us @scifri. Also, on Facebook, /scifri, and our website at sciencefriday.com. Go to our website during the break here and go to sciencefriday.com/pink, and you can see these faces are up there and see if you can tell the difference in them. Stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.
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FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR.
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FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking with Adam Alter, author of "Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces that Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave." Adam Alter is altering our thoughts about how we perceive what's around us. Let's go to - quick, we've been talking a lot about pink. So let's go to Wanda(ph) in San Francisco, who has interesting comment. Hi. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.
WANDA: Thank you. When the original color - industrial color studies came out and the effect of the pink room, it was used in jail cells and that sort of thing, they discovered that afterwards - at least there was a follow-up study that said that after inmates had been in the room for over 30 minutes, it begins to take on a reverse effect, and instead of being calming, it was upsetting. Can you comment on that?
FLATOW: Good question.
ALTER: Yeah, absolutely. That's a very good point. The researchers did start to find - some of them, at least - that the effect reversed over time. The idea was that people had been tamping down, or that somehow the color pink had been tamping down these natural urges to be more aggressive. And so, over time, if you left them in a room for too long, you'd get a backlash effect, a rebound effect.
And, in fact, you can now buy a lot of this stuff online. You can buy pink cardboard. There's a company that's grown out of this idea. And on the back of the cardboard, on the instructions, they say: Make sure you don't stare at this for longer than 15 minutes, because it'll - first, it will sap you of your energy and make you feel relaxed and tranquilized, but then there'll be this backlash effect.
FLATOW: Are we programming kids, girls and boys, differently because we give girls pink and boys, maybe, blue? I mean, are they being affected by something like that?
ALTER: I think so. I don't know that that's just about the color, the color effects. But certainly, I think some of this effect arises because we have associations between these colors' agenda, and I think that's part of what's going on with at least some of these effects.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. I got a couple of minutes. I want to get to one, last point. You talk about a really simple, interesting experiment with the honor system. People will be more honest if there are eyes watching them, even if they're not real eyes, but pictures of eyes.
ALTER: Yes. That's right. This is an experiment done at the University of Newcastle in England. And people were going to a tea room in the psychology department, and it turned out they were being very dishonest. They weren't putting money in the honesty jar when they took tea and coffee. And the researchers there - as good psychologists do - decided to test various interventions that were inexpensive.
And what they did was, for a period of about 10 weeks, they put pictures up above the honor jar. And every second week, the pictures were a pair of human or humanoid, human-looking eyes, and on the other weeks it was a picture of flowers. And they found that whenever this picture of eyes was above the jar, people were contributing about three times as much to the honor jar. And when they move it back to flowers, that rate of honesty went down again. And so this idea of eyes in the room surveilling us and watching us, and forcing us or encouraging us to be more honest is quite compelling.
FLATOW: Well - or encouraging us, you know, the iconic picture of Uncle Sam wants you...
FLATOW: ...pointing out of that poster...
FLATOW: ...right? Glaring eyes. Do people make use of this in...
ALTER: They do.
FLATOW: In what ways?
ALTER: They do. Police have started to use it in parts of England. They have billboards of massive pairs of eyes looking out at people, and they say - they at least say in report that crime rates have gone down.
And I think one interesting intervention, if you're trying not to eat food that you're trying to avoid, if you're on a diet, is to have a cupboard with all that bad food in it, and you have a mirror in the cupboard. So as you open the cupboard, the first thing that's - that looks back at you is yourself. You see your eyes looking at you, scrutinizing you. You stare into your soul and you think carefully about whether you actually do want to eat this food.
FLATOW: Well, I'm staring into my soul now and saying we have to say goodbye, and time has run out.
ALTER: Thanks for having me.
FLATOW: This is quite fascinating. If you want to know more of all these kinds of unexpected forces that shape how we think and feel and behave, it's "Drunk Tank Pink" is the book. It's got beautiful "Drunk Tank Pink" colors on a - it's like a little slab from a paint chip on its cover. Adam Alter, thank you very much for taking time to be with us today.
ALTER: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.