Adam Alter is an assistant professor of marketing at NYU’s Stern School of Business. His new book Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces that Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave explores the incredible (and vastly underestimated) power of context in our lives.
Adam and I spoke about the color that can make you appear sexy and powerful, what money means to your brain, and how the weather influences your ability to think.
My conversation with Adam was over an hour long, so for brevity’s sake I’m only going to post edited highlights here.
If you want the extended interview I’ll be sending it out with my weekly newsletter on Sunday.
In “Drunk Tank Pink“, I open with an anecdote that I think is a good emblem for a lot of the things that I talk about in the book. And that’s the effect of this shade of pink, in the beginning it was on prisoners in a naval prison. And this shade of pink some psychologists realized actually calmed down the prisoners and made them much more well-behaved and tranquilized them. And even the most aggressive of them, when they came out of the holding cell that had been painted this bright bubblegum pink shade were calmer, more manageable, more malleable. And I think the reason that it’s a good emblem for the other effects is that it’s something that no one expected ahead of time.
Everyone knows that pink is different from blue is different from red; and we have a pretty good sense that colors matter in some way. But what we don’t realize is the extent to which they seem to matter. So, this shade of pink, the effects that it has on people I think are far greater than anyone would imagine. It’s just one case of many in the book showing how much greater the effects are of these contextual factors than we imagine them to be.
I talk about symbols and how symbols influence us. I think the most striking part of that chapter is probably the effect of money on us. And there is some evidence that when you see money being destroyed, that it’s metaphorically like watching possibilities being extinguished. The brain actually registers pain when you watch money being destroyed.
Also, seeing money makes us less likely to help people. If we’re keeping a count of money or we happened to see an image of money, we are less helpful. We’re also less willing to ask for help. We experience less physical pain. We are able to withstand physical pain more than we could if we hadn’t just been exposed to money. So it is an incredibly powerful symbol.
I talk a lot about the color red, because it has fascinating effects for all sorts of biological reasons. The color red is associated most strongly with blood. And blood in different settings means very different things. In the context of romance, the rush of blood to someone’s face signals romantic interest. And if a woman puts up six photos of herself online, each where she’s wearing a different color shirt that are otherwise identical, she will have more hits very reliably, if she’s wearing a red shirt. It’s actually true for men as well; the color red stimulates sexual interest in people. It gives them the sense that you’re sexually interested. And so in an online dating context, red is very powerful.
Of course, the color red means different things in other settings. It can mean that you’re aggressive, and you’re ready to fight. A rush of blood to the face is no longer about sexual interest. In some contexts it means that you’re angry. There’s some pretty good evidence from Olympic events to suggest that when Olympic athletes who are in combat even like tae kwon do, wrestling or judo, when those athletes are randomly assigned to wear either red or blue for their bouts, it turns out that even when they’re evenly matched the ones who wear red tend to do better than the ones who wear blue. Their win rate goes up because they are wearing red. And that could be because they behave more aggressively when they see the color red on themselves, because their opponent sees them and feels that they are more aggressive and imposing. Or there’s actually good evidence to suggest that the referee sees a person who is wearing red as more dominant than the one wearing blue. And so if you give a referee the same bout, they are watching the same event that you Photoshop the uniforms, they will give the win to the person wearing red even if it’s a different person across different conditions. And so they really are swayed by this stuff.
On sunny days we actually think a little bit less clearly. We think more clearly on cloudier days because that makes us a little bit less happy. It tempers our moods, and when our mood is tempered we automatically seek ways to improve our moods, and it makes us more thoughtful. So in one experiment people left a small shop in Sydney, Australia. And when they left that shop on cloudy days, they were more observant and did a better job of remembering the features of the shops, of the layout of the shops than they did on sunny days.
As a scientist who studies human functioning and the way we think and feel and behave, I was skeptical about the research on nature and how nature could make us feel happier and better and think more clearly and recover from illness more quickly. I always found that to be a little hard to believe, but in doing the research for the book I’m completely convinced by these effects. I’m not 100% sure exactly of the mechanisms in nature that lead to these effects, but I think there are some fascinating ideas. But the effects are striking. And one of them is that people who are recovering in hospital who happen to be looking out at a stand of trees rather than a brick wall recover a day more quickly, in this case from bladder surgery.
That was the experiment done. And they required fewer painkillers. They complained to the nurses much less often. And the patients were identical to patients in other rooms with brick wall views. This view of nature is enough to make them feel better and to hasten their recovery. And the same is true about children in the long run. Children who happen to have experienced great stress as young kids do much better when they have a buffer in nature. So if they happen to live in a natural setting or their parents happen to have potted plants in the home or they just generally play outdoors in a natural setting, they like to play games that take place outdoors like soccer on a green field. All of that has major effects in buffering them against stress, against the negative effects of stress. So to me, that was the single biggest takeaway. And as someone who lives in New York City, I’m trying to bring in potted plants into my home because that’s really my only option here, unfortunately. I’m going to be running in Central Park more than I do right now.
As people move to different locations they become different versions of themselves. And the most extreme version of social psychology suggests we are always at the mercy of situations, of contexts, and that obviously resonates for you because you talked about it a lot on your blog. I think what the book suggests is that there is no single version of who we are, that we are malleable. We are different people in different contexts. We are more likely to leave litter on the ground when we happen to be in a dirty place. We are more likely to be honest when we see ourselves in the mirror or when there is a blue light shining that reminds us of the police, or when there’s a pair of eyes nearby that makes us feel like we’re being watched — even if it’s just an image on a billboard. What’s important about all of this is that we have this sense that there is a thread that runs through us, through time and who we are that ties us together from moment to moment. And I do think there is to some extent a thread and that people are different. Some people are going to be different in enduring ways and in chronic ways. But at the same time I think there’s far more within a person’s variance than we think or that we recognize. So I would say that’s the main striking point through all of this study. There are different versions of us. There is no single version of us.
If you want the extended interview (where Adam discusses how your name can dramatically affect your life and the ways in which context can make us hate or like murderers) I’ll be sending it out with my weekly newsletter on Sunday.
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