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Bookshelf: Drunk Tank Pink

By Adam Alter

10-08 Drunk Tank Pink

We may think that we make our own decisions and think our own thoughts. However, we are strongly influenced by cues in our environment, often without realizing it.

Drunk Tank Pink explores interesting associations between “hidden forces” and behavior, including: colors, names, locations, the weather, and the presence of other people.

Here are just a few findings from the book, some surprising, but all worth noticing:

  1. Paint the jail cell walls pink. Want to calm violent criminals, drunks, and potential vandals? Paint jail cells, drunk tanks, and public benches a color named Baker Miller Pink (hex code FF91AF). The color is named for the commanding officers at the U.S. Naval Correctional Center in Seattle, who painted one of their holding cells this color. The result? Prisoners who arrived in an angry and aggressive state calmed down after 15 minutes in the cell. Violent incidents during the color trial? Zero.
    But see an update about new research findings below (Jarrett, 2014).
  2. Install blue street lights. In Scotland and Japan, crime rates went down where bright white or yellow lights were replaced with blue lights. There was a reduction in violent crimes, suicides, and even littering.
  3. Avoid red and yellow backgrounds for web pages. In timed tests with web backgrounds of different colors (and the same loading speed), people believed that pages with red or yellow backgrounds loaded slower. Researchers also found that people were less likely to recommend those sites to friends.
  4. Watch what you name the kids. Identical resumes with different names receive different treatment. Resumes with “white-sounding” names, like Emily or Brad, were far more likely to elicit calls from potential employers than were those with “black-sounding” names, like Aisha or Jamal.
  5. Watch your donations. If the name of a hurricane starts with the same letter as your first name, you’re far more likely than other people to donate to the cause. For example, 10% of all donations for Hurricane Katrina came from people whose names started with a K.
  6. Cool off. Baseball pitchers hit batters with their pitches far more often during hot weather. Domestic violence rates go up. Violent crimes are more prevalent in the warmer regions of many countries, including the U.S., France, Italy, and Spain. Civil conflicts are more prevalent—in fact, twice as likely—in the tropics during warmer weather cycles than cooler ones.

We don’t always know why these cues are associated with certain behaviors, and it’s always important remember that correlation is not cause. For example, do blue street lights have a physiological impact on our brains? Or, do people just notice them more and therefore realize that someone may be watching?

Whatever the cause, it’s interesting that the blue lights are associated with lower crime rates.

Armed with this kind of information, we can pay attention, have more control over our behaviors, and make more intentional choices.


Book | Alter (2013). Drunk Tank Pink

Post | Bryne (2003). Colors/Pink

Update | Jarrett (2014). Are prisoners calmer when their cells are painted pink?

Post | Grohol (2008). Can Blue-Colored Light Prevent Suicide?

Post | Bowers (2011). Should You Be Concerned with Name Discrimination on Your Resume?

Post | Tucker (2013). Smart Hurricane Names: A policy Intervention That Costs Almost Nothing but Should Attract Billions of Dollars in Aid

News | Hamann (2013). Study Finds Weather Changes Fuel Violent Behaviour

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