Action Teaching AlterIn our third speaker preview interview, we highlight Adam Alter, author of the acclaimed book, Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces That Shape Our Thoughts, Feelings, and Behaviors (Penguin, 2013). A NYT best seller and one of the year’s most well-reviewed books in any genre, Drunk Tank Pink explores issues of human behavior that impact our personal lives, our professional lives, and the relationships we forge in both. Below, Alter shares what inspired him to write the book, how the concept for it evolved (“until the eleventh hour”), and what the most interesting findings will be for our prestige executive audience during his Forum presentation on November 7th.

“Drunk Tank Pink” isn’t an obvious title for a book about human behavior. What does it mean?
In the late 1960s, psychologists discovered that school students were better behaved when their classrooms were painted bright pink. As word spread about the color’s miraculous calming power, two officers at a Seattle naval prison decided to paint one of their prison cells with the same shade. The cell – or drunk tank, as it was known – was designed to contain the prison’s most aggressive inmates, and the officers were staggered to find that the prisoners responded just like the students: when they emerged from the pink cell, they were calmer and less aggressive.

Creative policymakers and businesspeople began to exploit the shade, which soon earned the nickname drunk tank pink. Door-to-door salespeople reported fewer rejections when they wore bright pink shirts, boxers who donned pink trunks swore their opponents were measurably weaker, and transit companies claimed that bus vandalism declined when they installed a raft of pink bus seats. College football coaches, always seeking a competitive edge, painted their visiting locker rooms with bright pink paint, and even ordered porcelain urinals, carpets, and lockers in the same shade. The pink visiting locker room at the University of Iowa’s Kinnick Stadium still attracts plenty of tourist traffic today. As time passed, researchers began to question why (and, indeed, whether) drunk tank pink was as powerful as early evidence suggested, but its reputation as a non-drug sedative remained largely intact.

That’s fascinating. It almost seems like you could write an entire book just about that one color-behavior connection. 
I titled the book Drunk Tank Pink because the color is a great emblem for the sorts of effects that I describe throughout the book—powerful forces that shape how we think, feel, and behave without our knowledge or consent.

What was the research process like for this book? 
It was extensive. I became interested in this area of psychology in 2000, so I’ve been thinking about the topic for a dozen years or so. The book is a combination of experiments and anecdotes, and though I was familiar with most of the experiments before I began writing, I did plenty of research to cobble together the anecdotes that enliven the text.

What do you want readers to learn from your book?
That much of who we are is accidental—that we become the people we are because of a series of chance encounters with the forces that shape us as we make our way through the world. The same is probably true of my interest in the psychology of judgment and decision-making. I happened to take classes with some very smart psychologists who taught these topics, so I became interested in the ideas they were discussing.

It makes sense that a Marketing professor (Alter currently teaches at NYU Stern) would have a background in psychology. So that was a happy accident?
As an undergrad, I studied psychology and law (and briefly worked at a large corporate law firm in Australia), and though I enjoyed both fields, I was ultimately drawn more to psychology than to law. But I did miss the act of arguing legal questions in front of a judge, and I think my interest in teaching is an outgrowth of that desire to discuss and develop ideas with smart people who respond with their own ideas.

Did you start writing Drunk Tank Pink knowing exactly how it would turn out, or were there unexpected turns? 
The biggest issue was deciding what to include and what to leave out, and some of those decisions were made only very late in the writing process. I originally proposed a book with five long chapters rather than nine shorter chapters, so the framework changed a couple of times as I wrote. The biggest change was learning that, while I was writing, researchers had overturned an area of research that covered ten pages of the original manuscript. At the eleventh hour, I rewrote that chapter from scratch.

Most of the audience members at the Forum will be very interested in applying your research to their brands’ marketing strategies. Do your findings translate to the business world?
Much of the book focuses on questions that should interest a business audience. I discuss some of the key psychological principles in naming people, ideas, brands, and products; how brand logos and symbols shape consumer behavior; why people across different cultures respond to the same products and ideas so differently; when people should be encouraged to work alone, and when they’re better off working in groups; and how colors and locations shape how we consume.

For more information on Adam or any other Forum speaker, please visit our event site or email L2’s Marketing Director Sierra Schaller.

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