Why Prison and Locker Rooms are Pink

Pink prisons aren't just fashionable - they work! (source: The Cairns Post)

Have you wondered why seeing red makes you mad? Or why Apple products are so popular with creative types?

Thanks to a fascinating podcast on Social Triggers Insider, I discovered the answers from social psychologist Adam Alter, author of Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces That Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave.

Elaborating on the influence of context, Alter's main premise is that people's subconscious exposure to cultural cues strongly influences how they thought, felt and behaved. Controlling for other factors like race, gender, age, income, and geography, Alter's research revealed that the environment, colours, names, sounds, weather and presence of others exert a greater effect on our thoughts, feelings and behaviours than previously imagined.

Consider this example of folks taking a tour of Chinatown (taken from NYU Alumni magazine). Research has shown that simply being in a Chinese neighbourhood surrounded by oriental icons, symbols, scents, and sounds would prime people from multi-ethnic backgrounds to adopt a more Chinese outlook. Apparently, one's physical environment made a huge difference in how one thought and felt.

The influence of culture can also be seen when researchers asked American and Japanese students to assess the emotions of a cartoon figure standing in front of four other figures. 72% of Japanese students were affected by the emotions of the other people in the background, while only 28% of American students were affected by them. This study revealed that Americans are individualists while Japanese are collectivists.

Similarly, icons and symbols are powerful behavioural triggers. Citing the example of Apple, Alter's research studies showed that people exposed to Apple's logo greatly improved their creativity when they participated in tests. On the other hand, those exposed to IBM's logo fared more poorly.

Now you know why designers always opt for Apple products.

Colours have an inordinate influence on people too. For example, red may make things appear to move more slowly (it is associated with "Stop" at traffic junctions) and hence people exposed to red tend to feel more impatient. However, wearing red also makes people appear more attractive due to its association with the blood that rushes through one's face during courtship.

Alter's book title Drunk Tank Pink referred to a study in the late 1970s which proved that exposure to bright pink decreased male aggression and physical strength. This observation led to all kinds of spaces - from locker rooms of sport stadiums to jail cells (aka "drunk tanks") - being painted that bright shade of pink to reduce the likelihood of violence.

The sound and fluency of names also exert an impact on people's perceptions. This extends to the shape of fonts and how easily they could be read. Names with hard sounds like "k", "c", "t", "p", and "b" are associated with strength and dominance (they have a jagged and rugged quality). On the other hand, rounded sounds like "ooo" and "aahh" are more feminine and gentle in nature.

In his research on charitable giving, Alter revealed that people donate more money for hurricane relief if the hurricane shares their name’s first initial. Seeking some real-world impact with that information, he’s had conversations with the National Weather Service about naming hurricanes to tether more often with the most popular American first initials, like J and M.

I suppose a rose by any other name doesn't smell as sweet.

Finally, have you wondered why everybody has an opinion on your website, clothes, and food choices while nobody comments on brain surgery, rocket science, or quantum mechanics?

Apparently, the theory of the illusion of explanatory depth is at play here. Most people assume that they are experts at a subject so long as they have exposure to it, even though they may not really know the subject that well. This results in people readily offering their surface opinions even when these may often be incorrect.

To avoid this, Alter suggests here that one should try to exercise phrasing things in a disfluent manner. This act of disfluency can be inculcated by making people "struggle a little bit with tasks early on, because not only are they learning the tasks by doing them, but in a global high-level sense, the act of persevering through that difficulty, and of learning what it feels like to struggle with these things, to deal with the difficulty, makes you better at dealing with future examples of it when you're really faced with many more difficult tasks."

Doing so will lead people to be more committed, and to think more deeply and fully on what it will be like to reach their goal. This would enrich their thoughts and dreams about what it would be like to accomplish what they're trying to accomplish, nudge them to take more energetic steps and be better prepared for them. You can read more about the subject of fluency versus disfluency here.

The next time you think of marketing to your customers, consider the influence of context and how these can be optimised to achieve your desired effect.

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