Adam Alter’s Drunk Tank Pink is a fun book. It follows in a long tradition of behavioural books — some by psychologists, some by marketers — that describe interesting quirks found in academic research. Much of Alter’s focus is on the subtle influence of colour on us. Unfortunately some of the influences seem too subtle to be plausible and Alter doesn’t push onto examine whether the ideas matter in the real-world.
He covers himself by talking about the butterfly effect — small effects may magnify to important differences. This is a pretty weak justification for research. Small effects may magnify but will they? We don’t really know so it isn’t clear what action we should take. What makes you think that your planned intervention will improve things if all the effects are subtle and relationships complex?
Perhaps my greatest criticism, however, is that Alter seems to lack intellectual curiosity. This is a problem I worry about with a lot of Consumer Behaviour research. It starts on a really interesting path and then stops before getting to a meaningful conclusion. Consider Alter’s motivating example — Drunk Tank Pink. Early research suggested that painting police cells pink helped calm down those under arrest. The colour of the drunk tank apparently greatly reduced violence. So far so good. One can see a very interesting idea and a meaningful social outcome. “Drunk tank pink emerged as the unlikely solution to a host of difficult puzzles from aggression to hyperactivity to anxiety and competitive strategy.” (Alter, 2014, page 3).
Many of the claims seemed too good to be true. Violent men being hypnotized into passivity by a shade of paint, if true this is magnificent. Even if the effect is modest and the colour only reduces violence a little bit that is still worth a lick of paint. So does Drunk Tank Pink actually work? Alter largely evades the question by saying that despite some failures to replicate the original findings the researcher still continues to field dozens of enquires. These are likely to have been increased by Alter’s book but popular interest doesn’t tell us if Drunk Tank Pink actually works. I want to know whether the examples given are just nonsense, maybe caused by a fluke occurrence.
Either way the story of Drunk Tank Pink is interesting. If it doesn’t work there is a great story about our willingness to believe and the dangers of un-replicated findings.
Perhaps more interesting is if the colour does work. I haven’t seen many drunk tanks but they are never pink on TV. Is TV simply wrong, are cells mostly pink? If so why are TV producers hiding the power of pink from us? If drunk tanks aren’t pink why are we missing an opportunity to reduce violence?
I really want to know what is going on — what happens after the initial study. Alter seems less interested, happy to flit onto the next cool finding about the power of fuchsia or something else that can be published in an academic journal.
Let me say it again, I really want to know what happens after the paper is published. Does Drunk Tank Pink actually work? How can we use our insights to make the world a better place? These seem the really important questions those of us interested in behavioural questions should be addressing.
Read: Adam Alter (2014) Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces That Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave, Penguin