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Monday, April 1, 2013 - Page updated at 07:30 p.m.

Jerry Large
Book explores cues that color how we think, feel and behave

By Jerry Large
Seattle Times staff columnist

I couldn’t help myself. I had to pick up yet another book on the little things that make big differences in who we are and how we behave.

This time the book is “Drunk Tank Pink and Other Unexpected Forces That Shape How We Think, Feel and Behave,” by Adam Alter, a social psychologist and an assistant professor in the marketing department at the Stern School of Business, New York University.

The book is a sort of a greatest-hits recounting of inquiries into the unconscious impacts of everything from the letters of the alphabet, to symbols, to the weather, to colors, and it starts with a pink cell in Seattle.

In the late 1970s Alexander Schauss, lead researcher at AIBMR Life Sciences, in Puyallup, discovered that pink makes men weak. Men who stared at a pink piece of cardboard for a minute scored lower on strength tests than when they stared at blue cardboard. The commanders of the U.S. Naval Corrections Center in Seattle, putting his work to the test, painted their drunk tank pink, and aggressive behavior all but ended. Jails across the country got out their paint brushes.

People are susceptible to all kinds of subtle influences and, as Alter writes, knowing about them might help us put them to their best uses and avoid their negative effects.

Sometimes the effect is caused by biology, sometimes by culture, but cues that shape behavior and thinking are everywhere.

Studies have found that people like letters better if they appear in our own names. Well, of course, but that can have important consequences. People with K names gave far more to Hurricane Katrina relief than they had given in previous storms. People with R names gave more after Hurricane Rita.

Test subjects come up with more creative solutions to problems if they’ve even glimpsed a picture of a light bulb, because of the meaning a light bulb has in our culture.

A lot of examples involving color stand out. People asked to grade papers found more errors if they used a red pen than when they used a blue or black pen.

A study found that football and hockey teams that wore black uniforms got more penalties. Blue or white uniformed teams tend to be the least aggressive.

In another study, researchers had two tae kwon do competitors stage a fight so that it came out about even. They showed a recording of the fight to groups of professional referees and had them score it. There was just one variable. The researchers digitally altered the recording to show one fighter or the other wearing red gear. Though everything else remained the same, whichever fighter wore red scored higher. The subtle association linked to the color wouldn’t have changed the outcome if the fighters were further apart, but it was enough to tip a close bout.

Researchers had subjects rate women on beauty, and used the same photographs, changing only the blouse color. The same woman will be rated much more attractive if she is wearing red than any of the other colors they used.

Colors affect how we see ourselves and how others see us. Alter mentions several studies that demonstrate the power of the opposite associations we have with black and white, differences that aren’t just aesthetic, but have real-world consequences in ways that we are usually unaware of; differences that affect who we see as good, or strong or virtuous or dangerous. Cues besides color can have that effect, too.

In one study, researchers asked subjects to decide whether a little girl was performing at or above fourth-grade level. They were shown a video of the girl answering questions in various academic subjects (She’d been coached to do a so-so job). Some subjects were shown a video introduction that had her in a middle-class environment and given a biography in which her parents were professionals. Other subjects were shown a video and biography that placed her in a lower-income context. The same girl, giving the same performance, was judged to be advanced in one case and behind grade level in the other. Any guesses which was which?

Isolation tests show people start falling apart if we are left alone for too long, and other studies show a long list of negative effects flow from overcrowded conditions. Studies have found that overcrowding reduces generosity, “provokes mental illness, drug addiction, alcoholism, family disorganization. ...”

Children growing up in crowded buildings suffer from the noise, so much that researchers could predict reading scores by knowing only which floor a child lived on.

Sometimes we can’t help ourselves, we just react to the cues, but knowing about the influences around us and within us gives us a chance to think again and adapt.

Alter will speak about his book at Town Hall Seattle at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or

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