Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces That Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave

By Brian S. McGowan, Ph.D., FACEHP, Chief Learning Officer and Co-Founder, ArchMedX Inc.

“[Drunk Tank Pink] will change the way you look at the world …”

This is the quote placed above the title of on the cover of “Drunk Tank Pink” by Adam Alter. It would be the kind of statement that creates a moment of pause — perhaps it seems a bit over the top — if it weren’t written by Dan Ariely. For those unfamiliar with Ariely’s work, he authored the best-selling books “Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape our Decisions” and “The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work & Home.” In a way, Ariely has made a career of seeing the world differently, so his synopsis of Alter’s work has a unique credibility and weight.

“Drunk Tank Pink” is an incredible exploration of how the environment and circumstances can affect our lives in unex­pected and underappreciated ways. More specifically, Alter provides innumerous empirical examples of how sensory forces can play tricks on our conscious experiences and how these forces may be leveraged to nudge or trigger decisions or actions that might not otherwise have been taken.

To be certain, several of the lessons shared are not all that comforting. For example, Alter recounts research from the 1970s that studied how easy it is to distort eyewitness memories. In one classic experiment, subjects watched videos of auto accidents and, after each video, viewers were asked to estimate how fast the cars were traveling. Everyone saw the same video, but the questions that were asked differed in just one word. Separate subsets of viewers were asked to estimate how fast cars were going when they “smashed,” “collided,” “bumped,” “hit” or “contacted” each other. Simply presenting the question differently funda­mentally (and unknowingly) changed eyewitness account.

Here is the data that was generated:

  • Smashed = 41 mph
  • Collided = 40 mph
  • Bumped = 38 mph
  • Hit = 34 mph
  • Contacted = 32 mph

Think about that for a second: empirical evidence that the human recall of a recent experience is so pliable that a single word can make such a dramatic difference.

Now think about what this all may mean in terms of learn­ing and continuing education. Over its 226 pages, “Drunk Tank Pink” goes on to explore imagery, culture, colors and temperature and how each play a critical role in shaping our memories, moods, decisions and even performance.

After I originally read the book, and perhaps more so since re-reading it, I have begun to see these lessons as necessary elements of my instructional design. Each force, even when subconsciously experienced, may be leveraged to affect a learn­er, alter a mood or stimulate an emotion.

Manipulative? Perhaps. But think of all the adult learning the­ory that you have ever explored, and think about what these theories are trying to empower your interventions to achieve. My guess is that for a very long time, we may have been miss­ing a critical set of design forces. And I hope when you read “Drunk Tank Pink” you may come to the same conclusion.

Find "Drunk Tank Pink" and other Almanac-reviewed titles in the Alliance's Amazon store

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