Book Report: Drunk Tank Pink

drunk-tank-pinkThese studies tell us something profound and perhaps a bit disturbing about what makes us who we are: there isn’t a single version of ‘you’. It’s comforting to believe that there’s an essential version of each of us, that good people are good, bad people are bad, and that those tendencies reside within us rather than in the sights, sounds, and symbols that populate the landscapes that surround us from moment to moment. But social psychology calls that belief into question.” (Drunk Tank Pink)

Title: Drunk Tank Pink – And Other Unexpected Forces that Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave

Author: Adam Alter

Publisher: Penguin

Publication Date: 2013

Origin: Honestly…can’t remember. I thought I bought it at a colleague’s recommendation, but when I showed him the book he returned only a blank stare that betrayed his complete lack of recognition.

Summary: Drunk Tank Pink takes its name from a synonym for Baker-Miller Pink, a shade of pink found to have a profound calming effect on people exposed to it.

In the book, Alter introduces the reader to a wide range of forces that can profoundly influence our thoughts, feelings, and behaviour.

For ease of explanation, Alter has divided into three parts, each of which explains three cues:

  • Part One, The World Within Us, examines Names, Labels, and Symbols
  • Part Two, The World Between Us, looks at The Mere Presence of Other People, The Characteristics of Other People, and Culture
  • Part Three, The World Around Us, focuses on Colours, Locations, and Weather and Warmth

Each chapter focuses on a cue and runs through a number of examples at the cue at work, showing how exposure to the cue – even an exposure so short we’re not consciously aware of it – can have a profound impact on us.

On our journey, we’ll learn about how seemingly innocuous things can have dramatic impacts on our lives: from exam scores, to promotions at work, to perceptions of crime rates, to aggression or passivity, to opportunities we may or may be offered, to our ability to creatively solve problems – and much more.

As Alter says, on p165, “These effects aren’t just idly fascinating; they influence how we experience our lives every day.”

My Take: I enjoyed Drunk Tank Pink, and ripped through it quite quickly. Despite amassing and examining a disparate collection of forces, Alter’s created a narrative that flows fairly steadily, with smooth transitions and segues.

However, I did find the content a bit overwhelming – but that isn’t really a knock on Alter, as much as it’s a testament to the size of the collection of cues he’s pulled together, and the magnitude of their influence on us. I found myself in a regular state of disbelief, only to turn the page and be confronted with another study that shows another enormous impact of another seemingly everyday influence. When you line them up, one after the other, the reader can almost reach a state of numb amazement.

Alter’s done a nice job of summarizing in-depth studies – his summaries are backed up with an extensive collection of notes and citations – and adding commentary as to their significance, without wandering into hyperbole.

All told, Drunk Tank Pink was a fun, eye-opening read.

Read This Book If: …you want to gain an understanding and appreciation for the ways we’re all influenced by seemingly unremarkable things (and kindly don’t read this book if you’re going to be a nefarious jerk who tries to abuse the knowledge herein).

Notes and Quotes:

  • I have an unverified and untested (to my knowledge) theory that people avoid companies when they’re unsure how to pronounce the name; this part of p16 reminded me of this theory: “When parents name their children, they’re also faced with a second implied choice: a simple, smooth, common name or a complex but unique name. The choice isn’t easy, because folk wisdom rewards both approaches. No one’s going to mispronounce the names Tom, Tim, Todd, and Ted, but people named Tom, Tim, Todd, and Ted are a dime a dozen. Meanwhile, people named T-ah (pronounced “Tadasha”), Thyra (is it Theera, Thigh-ra, or Tie-ra?), and Taiven (Tay-ven, or Ty-ven?) stand out in a crowd, but the crowd might ignore them because no one’s sure how to pronounce their names.”
  • Well, today I learned, thanks to p17: “Psychologists who study the linguistic properties of these names call the ones that are easy to pronounce fluent, and the ones that are difficult to pronounce disfluent.”
  • Oh hey, p20: “Just as wise parents name their biological offspring with care, wise entrepreneurs choose names for their commercial offspring carefully…Beyond the obvious dangers of choosing a name with unintended double meaning, the same fluency effects that shape how quickly lawyers rise to partnership seem to also shape the fortunes of fledgling financial stocks…A stock with a simpler, fluent name will tend to rise above its disfluently named counterparts.”
  • TIL, p27, in a section about the importance of labels: “In English, we use the word blue to describe both dark and light blues, encompassing shades from pale sky blue to deep navy blue. In contrast, Russians use two different words: goluboy (lighter blue) and siniy (darker blue).”
  • p32 (you can read about the study and some others here): “The Hannah study showed that people are suggestible, willing to view the world with the guidance of labels when faced with an otherwise unbreakable tie.”
  • I’ve been looking for a good ‘inverted’ map ever since reading this section. One, I’m a minor map geek; two, I think looking at an inverted equal-area map would help to broaden my thinking. Why? Because the maps we’ve all seen for years have conditioned us to think north is superior. p37: “After looking at hundreds of maps that place north above south, adults struggle to shake the notion that north inevitably sits above south.”

“After looking at hundreds of maps that place north above south, adults struggle to shake the notion that north inevitably sits above south.”

  • p42: I’ve decided to try to work Gurkentruppe into a conversation with a German colleague.
  • p55, in a chapter on the power of symbols: “We see so many symbols throughout the course of the day – particularly in advertisements on billboards, in newspapers, and on TV – that we hardly pay attention to any one symbol floating amid the sea of hundreds of others. Our lack of awareness makes their influence even more insidious as they push us and pull us and shape our thoughts and feelings below the surface of conscious awareness.”
  • p57: “Merely exposing people to a symbol that implies creativity for less than a tenth of a second can cause them to think more creatively, even when they have no idea that they’ve seen the symbol.”

“Merely exposing people to a symbol that implies creativity for less than a tenth of a second can cause them to think more creatively, even when they have no idea that they’ve seen the symbol.”

  • I’m thankful that I’ve got a very international group of friends and colleagues, because my eyes are frequently opened wider; p86: “Like the Saudi women who watched Noor, we’re all born into one reality, oblivious to the countless alternate realities that exist in other parts of the world. Without the presence of people who express the possibilities of a different set of norms, we continue to think, feel, and behave within the invisible boundaries that have shaped us since birth.”

“We’re all born into one reality, oblivious to the countless alternate realities that exist in other parts of the world. Without the presence of people who express the possibilities of a different set of norms, we continue to think, feel, and behave within the invisible boundaries that have shaped us since birth.”

  • p108: “Xenophobia is a deeply ingrained component of being human, and racial prejudice persists in part because people see difference as a barrier to personal safety.”
  • p111: “…our hidden, unconscious attitudes toward minorities evolve far more slowly than our overt spoken attitudes. Many of those ugly views are so well hidden that we’re not even aware that we hold them.”
  • p134: “While researchers still debate the origins of collectivism and individualism, culture continues to shape how people think about more than just the physical and social worlds. Cultural experience also shapes how we construe abstract concepts, like the relationships between numbers, the best way to paint a portrait, and whether to fight or flee in response to personal insults. We become so comfortable with our own cultural understanding of these abstract concepts that we come to assume that our views are privileged or inevitable. But even hard-edged concepts like mathematics are open to cultural reinterpretation.”
  • p164 and 165 provide lots of examples of how the colour red can mess you right up: “Red similarly throws off physical judgment even in people without existing medical disorders. People appear to write more erratically in red light than in green light, and their writing becomes less coherent when they write in red ink rather than blue, black, or green ink.” And, a few lines later, “These effects aren’t just idly fascinating; they influence how we experience our lives every day.”
  • p169: “Even today VIPs and luminaries strut down a red carpet, while the masses cheer from gray concrete sidelines.”
  • I definitely agree this passage from p188, and am typing this up after a nice, rejuvenating run: “The business of everyday life – dodging traffic, slavishly making decisions and judgment calls, interacting with strangers – is depleting, and what man-made environments take away from us, nature gives back.”
  • p202: “These studies tell us something profound and perhaps a bit disturbing about what makes us who we are: there isn’t a single version of ‘you’. It’s comforting to believe that there’s an essential version of each of us, that good people are good, bad people are bad, and that those tendencies reside within us rather than in the sights, sounds, and symbols that populate the landscapes that surround us from moment to moment. But social psychology calls that belief into question.”
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Posted in Books, Math and Science

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