‘Drunk Tank Pink’ is a Red-Letter Read

The title of Adam Alter’s Drunk Tank Pink comes from a late-’70s experiment that revealed “the miraculous tranquilizing power of bright pink.” Once researchers noted test subjects were significantly weaker after staring at a piece of pink cardboard, prisons started painting their holding cells pink. Public housing enjoyed less vandalism after a new coat of pink paint, and community buses installed pink seats.

Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces that Shape How We Think, Feel and Behave (Penguin Press, $26) is Alter’s fascinating analysis of how psychological cues can influence behavior. And he should know: Alter earned his Ph.D. in social psychology at Princeton and is an assistant professor in the marketing department at Stern School of Business, New York University.

In the first three chapters, Alter tackles names, labels and symbols. Your name can determine whether you get a promotion, or how much you donate to certain charities. Experiments reveal that a light bulb can inspire innovation and handling money can soothe physical pain. One minute, Alter is discussing the layout of the standard QWERTY keyboard; next, he’s using it as a springboard to discuss racism and prejudice.

Alter devotes a significant portion of Drunk Tank Pink to people and culture. Alter looks at why sprinter Usain Bolt runs faster in front of an adoring crowd (social facilitation effect), while mediocre pool players play even worse when they’re being watched. He also explains why serious chess players are more likely to lose to a beautiful woman. Alter also ponders the effects of solitary confinement, and relates the scientific experiments of Michel Siffre, who spent six months in a cave in Del Rio, Texas, to determine the effects of isolation.

Much of what Alter reveals is rooted deep in our subconscious, where hidden prejudices can linger. Subjects who are subliminally primed (exposed to images for a fraction of a second, too fast for the images to register) are more likely to associate blacks with crime and more likely to behave honestly when forced to glimpse their reflection in a mirror. Who knew that photos of loved ones could be effective painkillers, or that people are more likely to litter in dirty neighborhoods? Not me.

In the final third of Drunk Tank Pink, Alter shows how colors affect us physically: red light tends to agitate, blue light can curb crime and athletes who wear black uniforms are more aggressive during a game. He also reveals how our physical location (living on the lower floors of an apartment building, for example) can affect intellectual development, and how hot and cold weather takes a psychological toll.

Drunk Tank Pink is an intelligent look at how we process information and the myriad forces that influence our decisions. Definitely not to be missed. ★★★★☆

Stay cool with “Bookini,” our poolside reading series by M. Scott Krause.

[ librarian loves ]

Selected by Jeanne Goodrich, executive director for the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District.

Old Hollywood meets new in a delightful series by Cheryl Crane, daughter of legendary ’50s actress Lana Turner. The first in the series, The Bad Always Die Twice (Kensington, $8), kicks off Hollywood real estate agent Nikki Harper’s sleuthing: Her real estate partner calls in hysterics because she’s found a dead man in her bed. From there it’s a romp from mega-million dollar Hollywood mansions, to closeted he-man action actor neighbor, to fancy parties, to Elvis imitators … all accompanied by adroit comments and raised eyebrows by Nikki’s mother, also a glamorous ’50s screen legend. A satisfying poolside read.