Drunk Tank Pink: A Q&A With Adam Alter

Today Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces that Shape How We Think, Feel and Behave goes on sale. The author is NYU Assistant Professor of Marketing Adam Alter. I came across Adam's book a few months ago, and after reading the summary I knew I needed to pick up a copy. I contacted Adam and he was nice enough to send me the book, which I enjoyed. Anyone interested in human behavior should consider buying this book. It's filled with psychological insights that will make you think twice about what makes us tick. Adam was nice enough to answer some questions. So, without further ado... 

McNerney: Lance Armstrong is brawny, Francine Prose writes well and people whose names begin with the letter K gave more to Hurricane Katrina relief. Adam, what’s going on here???  

Alter: There are two distinct effects here.  The first—the tendency for people to trace destinies that mirror their names—is known as nominative determinism (literally, “determined by name”).  There’s a great Wikipedia page devoted to aptronyms—names that match life outcomes—from German psychiatrist and anxiety expert Jules Angst, to lawyer Sue Yoo.  

Despite these vivid anecdotes, nominative determinism has a rocky past.  There’s some mixed evidence that people’s lifestyles resemble the meaning expressed in their names, but there’s other evidence that suggests the effect is weak or non-existent.  Assuming some people are prodded to live lives that mimic their names, one possibility is that they develop a fondness for life paths that remind them of themselves.  We’re an egotistical species, and since most of us like our names and what they represent (us!), we’re drawn to outcomes that match those names. 

There’s stronger evidence for other name effects, though.  For example, people with typically white-sounding names are far more likely than people with typically black-sounding names to receive a response when they apply for a job.  Lawyers with simpler names rise up the legal hierarchy faster than lawyers with more complex names, even when they graduate from equally strong law schools, have spent the same period of time practicing as a lawyer, and have American-sounding names.

The second effect you identified is the tendency for people to donate more to hurricanes that share their first initial.  Again, there are a couple of possibilities.  We know that people like their initials more than they like other letters (a phenomenon known as the name-letter effect), so it’s possible that they respond just a bit more sentimentally, and donate a bit more generously, when the hurricane shares their name.  The other possibility is that a hurricane that shares their initial tugs at their attention a bit more insistently, so they’re more engaged when the storm wreaks havoc and they’re asked to donate.    

McNerney: Teachers told me not judge to a book by its cover. But some of the studies in your book suggest that this might be impossible, at least unconsciously. One example stands out. In a study from the 1980s John Darley and Paget Gross showed a video of a girl named Hannah to two different groups. One saw her in an affluent neighborhood and the other saw her in a poor neighborhood. The psychologists found that the participants who watched Hannah in an affluent neighborhood described her as having above average academic ability while the group participants who watched her in a poor neighborhood said the opposite. Explain the negative long-term consequences of unconscious stereotyping. 

Alter: The classic Hannah study you described does a fantastic job of illustrating the insidiousness of unconscious stereotyping.  In the book I argue that subtle cues have magnified effects on our lives, and this is a perfect example.  In that study, students perceived Hannah’s performance on a test differently depending on whether she seemed rich or poor.  Now imagine that these two Hannahs are assigned to different classes at school based on their “performance” on the test—the rich Hannah learns among high-achieving peers, goes on to achieve higher SAT scores, and lands a good position at university.  The poor Hannah fares less well on her SATs (partly because she was consigned to the lower-achieving class years earlier), and consequently struggles to get into college.  One small wrinkle in their outcomes early in life—a wrinkle created by unconscious stereotyping—had profound effects years later.    

McNerney: Drunk Tank Pink has an interesting chapter on the power of symbols: Apple’s logo boosts creativity, American flags make us more patriotic and we’re quick to deem people immoral after viewing images resembling a swastika. My favorite example is a study you conducted with Daniel Oppenheimer that demonstrated the influence a fake US dollar bills has on our valuations. Could you briefly explain this study and what it suggests about how the mind works?  

Alter:  In that study, we asked people to estimate how much they could purchase with a dollar bill.  We gave each of them a questionnaire that depicted a dollar bill with space to guess how much of each of ten cheap items that dollar bill could buy—M&Ms, paperclips, paper napkins, thumbtacks, and so on.  

For half of the participants, the dollar bill at the top of the page was a faithful photocopy of a real dollar bill.  For the remaining participants, we photoshopped the bill so it differed subtly from the real bill.  If you look at a real dollar bill, for example, George Washington faces right, but in our fake bill we rotated his image so he faced left.  The differences were so subtle that not one of the participants recognized that the bill had been altered—but they still believed it could buy about 60% less of each of the ten items.  Somehow, the bill’s novelty diminished its purchasing power. 

In other studies in the paper we showed that unfamiliar forms of real currency—the Jefferson $2 bill or the Sacagawea $1 coin, for example—seemed less valuable than the standard $1 bill as well (except when people had encountered those rarer forms of currency many times before).  Familiarity imbues currency with value, which suggests that the U.S. treasury and mint should think carefully before they blithely introduce 50 State quarters and a series of updated bills!            

McNerney: Sartre’s maxim that Hell is other people appears a bit simplistic after reading the social psychological research you present in chapter four “The Mere Presence of Other People.” Sprinters run faster during competition, but one study found that students who took the SAT in rooms with fewer people scored better on average. We mimic people we like and after learning about the French adventurer Michel Siffre it sounds like extended social isolation is worse than death. Here’s my question: what finding or phenomenon that you came across in your research changed your mind the most about the social life of human beings?

Alter: That’s a great question.  For me, the isolation findings are some of the most striking in all of social psychology.  They illustrate just how acutely we need social contact to survive.  Take the case of Michel Siffre, whom you mentioned.  Siffre was fit, healthy, and young.  People were fascinated by the space race in the 1950s and 1960s, and Siffre decided to contribute to the cause by simulating the sort of isolation that astronauts might experience in space.  More than once, he confined himself to the depths of a cave, miles from human contact.  Despite choosing to spend time away from other people, Siffre quickly broke down each time.  He cried, grew depressed, mistook his hallucinations for reality, and once befriended a mouse.  He had plenty of food, water, and entertainment, but without the presence of another human, Siffre was defeated.  

Some people do better without social contact than others, but many wither very quickly.  That’s very surprising to me, even now.  When you live in Manhattan—one of the most densely-populated cities on Earth—you hear people romanticizing about “getting away from it all,” but their intuitions about how long they might last away from civilization are badly flawed.  Just as we can’t imagine eating again after a big meal (though a few hours later we’re famished), so we can’t imagine that we’d ever want to see another human again after human contact.  That mistaken intuition fascinates me.

McNerney: An unfortunate feature of the social brain is an ingrained xenophobia. We see the world not objectively but through the lens of the culture we are born into. In a couple of chapters on how we perceive other people and how culture affects that perception you paint a somewhat pessimistic picture of human social life. Modernity reminds us that we’re able to overcome natural prejudices. Based on your research what pro-social capacities allow us to accomplish this in order to cooperate and collaborate better?

Alter: I agree that some of the research told a bleak story, but much of it was quite optimistic.  In some of my own research, with social psychologist Virginia Kwan, people behaved differently when embedded in different cultural environments even very briefly.  After shopping at a Chinese supermarket or walking through Chinatown in Manhattan, European Americans took on some of the cognitive patterns more typical of Chinese than American culture.  For example, Chinese philosophers emphasize the inevitability of cyclical change—day becomes night; the seasons shift from warm to cold and back again—whereas Western philosophers were more focused on the concept of continuous progress towards an endpoint.  Those ancient beliefs now express themselves in American and Chinese cultures.  Normally Americans expect financial stocks that have been appreciating to continue to appreciate, whereas East Asians are more likely to believe that, like the inevitable setting of the sun, an appreciating stock must surely depreciate soon.  When we asked Americans who had recently shopped at a Chinese supermarket, walked through Chinatown, or seen a Taoist Yin-Yang symbol (which symbolizes cyclical change and balance), their stock predictions mimicked those of East Asians.  This result suggests that the gulfs that separate cultures may be easier to bridge than we believe.

Still, I agree that the picture is bleak: xenophobia is pervasive, and it’s difficult to imagine a truly post-racial (or post-religious) era.  But while it’s impossible to stop people from prejudging and relying on stereotypes, we do our best to manage the situation by erecting societal shields, from anti-discrimination laws to affirmative action policies.  I’m not suggesting that humans are incapable of good—we’re also responsible for incredible kindnesses—but it seems foolish to rely on inherent goodness to trump our instincts for divisiveness.    

McNerney: I think my favorite part of the book is the chapter on colors. But I have a beef to pick with the color red. You mention a physician, Felix Deutsch, who curbed heart palpitations and shortness of breath in a patient by placing her in a red room. This suggests red has a therapeutic effect. However, in another study two wily anthropologists discovered that wrestlers wearing red uniforms win, on average, slightly more than wrestlers in blue uniforms, suggesting that red is connected to aggression. Finally, you mention that red is biologically associated with dominance and aggression (a possible evolutionary explanations for the wrestlers) but it is also associated with blushing. What’s up with red? And what does it teach us about how colors influence the mind?

Alter: That’s an excellent question.  As with so many psychological effects, the key is context.  When you ask people to tell you what they think about when they see the color red, many of them say “blood.”  But our skin reddens at the rush of blood for many different reasons.  In the context of dating it might signal sexual excitement, but in the context of a boxing match it might signal aggression and the will to fight. 

You also mentioned Felix Deutsch, who was a pioneer in the field of color research.  Some of his methods were less than rigorous, though, and though he found that red light pacified one patient, other researchers have shown that red light excites and agitates people.  Deutsch wrote some terrific papers on color psychology, but often he relied on anecdotes rather than tightly controlled lab studies.  When those studies came later, they overturned some of Deutsch’s shakier findings.

McNerney: Finally, as a Manhattanite with a bedroom on the street, the studies you mentioned demonstrating the ill effects of noise pollution confirmed my intuition that falling asleep to loud trucks and police sirens is not exactly healthy for my brain. Give us a few of your favorites examples to explain how the environment affects well-being for better or for worse. 

Alter: One of my favorite examples in the book follows a series of hospital patients who were recovering from gall bladder surgery.  By accident rather than design, the hospital was designed so half the patients’ rooms looked out onto a brick wall, whereas the others looked out onto a small stand of leafy trees.  After surgery, the patients were randomly assigned to recover in one of the two room types.  The difference in recovery time and wellbeing was immense.  Patients with a view of the trees returned home a day sooner, experienced fewer depressive episodes, and needed half as many painkillers.  All this from a view of trees!

That’s bad news for people whose apartments look out onto a brick wall (as a Manhattanite you’re lucky to have a street view!), but the message is optimistic.  The Germans and Japanese have it right, because they prescribe forest walks as a form of psychological therapy—and even a pot plant or the simulation of a running stream and trees is enough to improve your wellbeing.

On the other end of the spectrum, researchers have shown that children who live on lower floors in tall residential buildings near a highway learn to speak and read more slowly than do children who live on higher floors.  The noise of the traffic is sometimes so intense that it leaves the children with mild hearing deficits.  Later, they struggle to distinguish between similar-sounding words like “bout” and “pout,” which slows their reading progress.  What’s surprising is not that nature is good and loud noise is bad, but rather that nature and noise pollution have such profound effects on all sorts of measures of wellbeing.

Thanks Adam!

Drunk Tank Pink

(Adam will be doing a Q&A with Malcolm Gladwell on Wednesday the 27th at Barnes and Noble on the upper west side of Manhattan.) 

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