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A pink drunk tank? How our surroundings can shape our behaviour Add to ...

When researchers in 1979 discovered that the colour pink had a weakening effect on strong, healthy men, prisons and county jails across the United States painted their holding cells in the bright bubblegum hue. It produced the desired effect: Aggressive and unruly inmates were subdued by the colour, which thus earned its quirky name: drunk-tank pink.

These days, the colour is no longer widely used by correctional institutions, says Adam Alter, an assistant professor of marketing and psychology at New York University (although certain sports teams still use it for the visitors’ locker room). By some accounts, the intense colour actually makes people more aggressive over time, while others suggest that the initial calming effect has more to do with people’s associations of pink with weakness rather than any inherent power of the colour.

Even so, Alter says, drunk-tank pink is a classic example of how surroundings can influence thoughts and behaviour. In his new book, Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces That Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave, Alter draws upon decades of research to demonstrate how everything from our names to the weather can potentially change the course of our lives.

Reached by phone in New York, Alter explained how we can make the most of these influences.

Give your children simple names

In an analysis of the names of lawyers at 10 U.S. law firms, Alter and his fellow researchers found that those with common names rose to top positions more often and more quickly than those with hard-to-pronounce ones.

The rationale: “When people can pronounce a name more easily, there’s less anxiety. They are more likely to pick you for a team, for example. You may not do this consciously, but if it’s very easy to pronounce one name and very difficult to pronounce another, you may use that as a tiebreaker.

“Across the course of evolution, we feel more positive about things that are familiar to us – things that we’ve come across in the past and haven’t hurt us. So we just feel this hard-to-explain positivity toward these simpler names.”

Switch on a light bulb

A series of studies conducted on university students showed people are better at solving tricky insight problems when they watch a light bulb illuminate beforehand.

The rationale: “I don’t think it automatically brings the solution. But because the light bulb is a metaphor for deeper thinking or creative thinking, it might signal to us that we need to use a slightly different strategy in seeking that answer.”

Wear red to impress a date

A French study found that female hitchhikers were much more successful flagging down rides from male drivers when they wore red shirts, as opposed to other colours, though female drivers were unaffected by the colour. In a separate study, women attracted much more attention from men on dating websites if they showed pictures of themselves in red clothes.

The rationale: “This effect is possibly driven by biological factors, that we associate the colour red with the flush of blood people show when they are sexually interested. That’s true across the animal kingdom – that flush of red is associated with sexual interest, with interest in mating.”

Make big decisions on cloudy days

Sunshine can blind you to risks and makes you less attentive. Economists have found that stock traders tend to be bullish when the sun is shining and cautious when the weather is overcast.

The rationale: “When the weather is good, we tend to be a little bit happier. When you’re feeling happy, that’s a feedback cue to the body and psyche that everything is okay. And when we think everything is okay, we’re a bit less vigilant.

“In contrast, when the weather’s not so good, we confuse the negativity we feel because of the bad weather with the sense that everything is not all right. That makes us a little more vigilant. We pay attention to our surroundings a little more carefully.”

Rest in a room with a view

Nature has a profound effect on our well-being. A Pennsylvania study conducted in the early 1980s found that patients who had gallbladder surgery recovered a full day faster, required less pain medication and reported up to four times fewer negative symptoms when they stayed in a room with a view of trees, compared with patients put in rooms overlooking a brick wall.

The rationale: “Nature relieves us of a lot of stress. The classic early psychologist William James suggested there are two types of attention: the kind that sucks your attentional resources and makes you a little more stressed, like when you’re having to cross a busy street. The other kind is the attention that occupies us at a very low level and doesn’t require that we act. Nature is one of these sorts of cues. The rustle of trees in the wind or the movement of water in a lake, those sorts of experiences replenish us. They make us better able to deal with future decisions and future stresses.”

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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