Book jacketI’m always a sucker for books on what makes people tick, so I grabbed Drunk Tank Pink: and other unexpected forces that shape how we think, feel, and behaveby Adam Alter as soon as I saw it. Alter holds a PhD in applied psychology from Princeton and is an assistant professor at NYU.

The book discusses a number of studies, both controlled and anecdotal, that show how we are affected by our environment in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways. It’s divided into three sections according to the location of the “source.” That is, the world within us, between us, and around us.

Part one concerns “The World Within Us,” consisting of those things that are internalized, like our names and our cultural identities. Studies have shown, for example, that we tend to favor the letters contained in our own names. Indeed, to such an extent that people whose names begin with a “K” gave more heavily to Hurricane Katrina relief than those whose names didn’t. The pattern was verified more than once, on the occasion of other hurricanes. And be careful naming your children. “Disfluent” names (those with hard consonants or that don’t trip off the tongue) make it less likely that a person will be successful in the work world. Simple and smooth is the best rule for naming your offspring, it seems.

I had never imagined how important “labeling” is in our perceptions of the world. An example given here is the color “blue.” In English, the word refers to all shades of blue, but in Russian there are separate words for “darker” and “lighter” blue. The fact that Russian brains label those two ranges of the color allows them to much more quickly sort “Which color does the third one match” when given three samples of blue—two matching and the other different—on a computer screen. They were able to sort them as quickly as English speakers were able to sort between blue and green. In fact, the sorting times for blue and green were the same for both groups and both groups have different names (labels) for blue and green. Freaky.

In a darker vein, Alter reminds us of the old “Blue vs. Brown Eyes” experiment that an elementary school teacher conducted in 1968 with her third-graders. In case you’re not familiar with it, she told her class that blue-eyed children were superior and treated the brown-eyed children as second-class citizens. The next day, she told them she was mistaken—it was the other way around and switched the roles. In less than a day’s time, most of the children fully embraced the concept and began behaving accordingly.  It made quite a hullabaloo at the time. This was not the first such experiment, however. A larger controlled study of labeling was conducted in 1964. In that study, researchers told teachers that certain of their students (randomly selected) were “academic bloomers.” They were, in fact, just like everybody else from all measures. So, they should have shown the same progress, individually and as a group, as their peers. However, the “bloomers” scored 10-15 points higher on IQ tests the following year. They hadn’t had different teachers or curriculum. The results were apparently the simple result of having teachers who thought the “bloomers” were special. So, imagine how children throughout the years have been affected by teachers’ expectations both positive and negative. Yikes! Don’t expect much of shy children? Well, you won’t get much then. Children with high activity levels? Lower socioeconomic backgrounds? Insert given prejudice here and let your imagination fill in the blanks.

I could go on, but I’m running short on space. So, wondering about drunk tank pink? In 1979, a study was conducted with colored cardboard. One group of young men looked at a dark blue sheet, the other half looked at a bright pink one. Lo and behold, the ones looking at the pink sheet demonstrated less strength afterward. A couple of naval officers heard about it and painted their holding cells pink and reported that inmates were calmer even fifteen minutes after being placed in the special cell. The results ran through the world, and various and sundry other organizations started making use of what was called Baker-Miller Pink (after the two officers), but of course it soon devolved to being called drunk tank pink. Football coaches at Colorado State and the University of Iowa painted the visitors’ lockers pink, too. That is, until the athletic conferences ruled that visitors’ spaces must be identical to the home team’s. Ah, well, can’t win ‘em all!