Color sells, it persuades, it cajoles, but how exactly does it wield such power? In the book “Drunk Tank Pink” author and NYU professor Adam Alter peers into how seeming innocuous factors of daily life—colors, names, visual symbols—can drive consumer behavior in unimaginable ways.
The book’s title stems from a 1979 psychiatric study in which 150 strapping young men were asked to stare at a card colored either blue or pink, then take a strength test. Those who gazed on blue apparently amplified their own strength by doing so, while the pink-starers seemed weakened just by gazing at pink. Pink’s supposed tranquilizing effect rapidly gained currency among psychologists of the day. Two corrections officers, Gene Baker and Ron Miller, daubed holding cells in their respective facilities a bubble-gum shade, reported an immediate subduing effect, and boom: Baker-Miller Pink, aka Drunk Tank Pink, became the prison industry’s latest brainwave. Enthusiasm for Drunk Tank Pink colored the efforts of charities (donations increased when charity workers donned the color) and football coaches (painting the competition’s locker room pink gave the enemy a distinct disadvantage) through the 1990s.
“I have a Ph.D. in social psychology, and I study human judgment and decision-making, both within and beyond the marketing world,” explains Alter in an email interview with Print. “When I came across Drunk Tank Pink and its effects, I realized that it was a perfect emblem for the vast array of effects that I described in the rest of the book.”
Personal and professional reasons motivated him to explore color, too: “I’m color-blind, so I’ve always been attuned to the question of how different people perceive colors and how those colors go on to shape their interactions with the world,” Alter continued. “We know, for example, that people who wear red fare better on dating websites, athletes who wear black are called for more penalties, and teachers are more critical and find more errors in written work when they use red pens.”
What other color-revelations does Alter’s book explore? Chapter seven opens with Glasgow’s decision to install blue outdoor lights around the city, a beautifying move with an unexpected bonus: crime dropped precipitously all around town. Police forces as far away as Japan flocked to imitate the success of Glaswegian blue lights, reporting similar drops in crime wherever the lamps cast their cool blue nimbus. The trend hopped to sawmills in Montreal, where night-shift workers were bathed in a blue-green light as they worked, mimicking daylight’s predominant hues. Previously rumpled by disrupted sleep cycles, the blue-bathed night workers reported feeling and sleeping better and error rates at the mill dropped from 5% to 1%.
It’s tempting to assume blue light contains magical spores that pervade our psyche with its properties, but the effects of these experiments might well be traced to a broader suggestibility. In other words, a pervasive halo of blue light at nighttime arguably reminds criminals that cops’ revolving blue flashers could be always nearby. Similarly, sawmill workers who know why they’re bathed in blue-green light may make fewer errors simply because they feel more appreciated by their employer, who cared enough about their circadian-rhythm woes to try to fix them.
Every color fan likes the wrong-headed tale of a global brand venturing into an international market without researching what associations their brand’s name or color palette conveys to local folks. Yet as acculturated as color’s meanings often seem, Alter argues there are more supra-national color associations than not.
“Color preferences vary surprisingly little” across cultures, Alter remarks. “There are certainly some cultural differences, but they’re vastly outweighed by our preference for blues, and our general distaste for yellows (especially brown- or mustard-yellows). Many of these associations have biological origins, which explains why they cut across cultural barriers and seem to apply quite broadly. The easiest way to gauge whether there are cultural differences—which may emerge from time to time as fashions change—is to run simple questionnaires that assess both how much people like different colors, and what they associate with those colors. Brands do plenty of this sort of research, particularly when they launch in new markets.”
Pick up “Drunk Tank Pink” for eye-widening observations beyond the realm of color, too. Did you know, for instance, people whose names began with K gave more generously to victims of Hurricane Katrina than those whose names began with other letters? If you wonder at how unseen forces impinge on our thoughts, motivations, and reactions all the time, “Drunk Tank Pink” renders those forces momentarily visible—a fun, engaging read as well as an occasionally spooky one.
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