Skip to main content

Drunk Tank Pink - Adam Alter ****

Going on the subtitle, which I had to because the title meant nothing to me, I was concerned this would seem to be yet another of the long string of books we've had looking at particular emotions and how the brain produces them. Instead it is far more fascinating because it's observational rather than theoretical. About, for instance, the way that bright pink decor seems to calm people (hence the title - this effect seems not to have reached the UK where I suspect prison governors might resist painting their cells pink), or the way that names influence our perception of people.

This is a genuinely fascinating book, exploring the many psychological experiments that demonstrate how human behaviour is influenced by factors beyond our control and often beyond our awareness. Adam Alter includes more obvious inputs, like Maslow's hierarchy of need, or the tendency to prefer those who are like ourselves, but also many factors that influence us in subtle and unexpected ways. Whether it's the way the ability to see yourself in a mirror makes you less likely to cheat, or the way that some optical illusions don't work as well with African tribespeople as they do New Yorkers, because the Africans live in a world with few straight lines so aren't fooled by fake perspective effects that the New Yorkers can't resist, there is so much here to find interesting.

While I think Alter goes too far in his conclusion in saying that after reading this book you'll be in a better place to 'maximize your health wisdom wealth and well-being' - and let's face it, that wording suggests a tongue firmly in the cheek - you will be genuinely amazed the number of times and situations when your perception and behaviour is likely to be subtly altered by influences you aren't even aware of. One remarkable suggestion is that because of a right hand bias, most of us prefer words that are typed with the right  hand on QWERTY keyboard. So apparently we particularly like words like n00b and woohoo (Alter's examples). I don't know about you, but these aren't among my favourite words - and for that matter, it's hard to see how this can influence someone who isn't a touch typist. But it's still great fun.

My one concern, and the reason that this book has four stars rather than five, is that the author never mentions the reality that much research in psychology is of relatively poor quality. In the manner of a tabloid newspaper jumping from a trial with cells in a lab to say that a substance cures cancer, Alter seems to take all the evidence as if it were fact. Sometimes the effect he describes appears subtle - perhaps a five per cent change - but he never explores statistical significance. And in at least one example, he cites an experiment as if it's meaningful without pointing out it has since been shown that the effect only occurs in the artificial environment of the lab, and isn't repeated when the experiment is undertaken in a real world situation.

There is even an example of being a little fast and loose with evidence in the book. It shows a series of three photos of the same face, but with the features modified so that they display characteristics typical of black and white faces, and something in between. Alter makes a big deal that people see the faces as darker or lighter, depending on the characteristics even though they're 'identical in tone.' He points out 'If you cover up the facial features with your hand and focus only on the foreheads you'll be able to see that the faces share an identical skin tone.' The trouble is, this is a test of a very subtle reaction, where people will pick up on tiny visual queues - and his observation is selective, a classic error in soft sciences like psychology.

While it's true that the foreheads all have the same tones, it's not true of the rest of the face. For some reason, on the 'black characteristics' face, there is a shadow across the cheeks that extends all the way to the lips. On the 'white characteristics' face, this shadow is only on the very edge of the face. As a result, around a quarter of the skin area is significantly darker on the 'black' image - plenty enough to make someone see this face as darker skinned. Being selective about your data is a cardinal sin in science and undermines the authority of the book.

Overall then, Drunk Tank Pink is great fun with lots of fascinating observations of the strange ways that people behave. This is material that has a real impact on the way we understand human behaviour and perhaps how we should react to it. But you need to apply a pinch of salt to the 'scientific' conclusions, as there is definitely an aspect of tabloid science at play.


Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

UFO Drawings from the National Archives - David Clarke ***

This is a lovely little book that, sadly, not every reader will see the point of. If somebody’s anecdotal account of a presumed alien encounter is obviously a misperception of a mundane occurrence, or else too vague – or too far-fetched – to be taken seriously, then it’s all too easy to dismiss it as worthless. But that’s missing the point. The fact that so many incidents are reported in these terms makes the witnesses’ testimony worthy of serious study – to teach us, not about extraterrestrial civilisations, but about our own culture.

That was the core message of David Clarke’s excellent How UFOs Conquered the World published a couple of years ago. Now Clarke is back with another take on the same basic theme.  His day job is Reader and Principal Lecturer in Journalism at Sheffield Hallam University, but for the last ten years he’s also acted as consultant for the National Archives project to release all of Britain’s official Ministry of Defence (MoD) files on UFOs. Throughout the Cold…

Crashing Heaven (SF) - Al Robertson ****

There's an engaging mix of powerful thriller and science fiction in this impressive novel. After the Earth has been rendered uninhabitable, human life is limited to vast space station. Our central character, Jack, has a symbiotic artificial intelligence, Hugo Fist, designed to destroy other AIs in a mysterious collective that is said to have committed an atrocity - but with a kick in the tail that because of an unbreakable contract, Fist will take over Jack's body in a few weeks' time.

Al Robertson packs remarkable technology concepts into the cyber side of this story, from AI corporations that act as a pantheon of gods to the 'puppet' that is Fist (he usually come across as a virtual cross between Mr Punch and an evil ventriloquist's dummy). Robertson does all the cyber stuff so well that it's easy to miss that this is, in effect, a myth in electronic clothing - you could substitute the myths of 'real' Greek gods and magic for what happens here. Alt…

The Science of Food - Marty Jopson ****

This is a tasty little volume, packed with kitchen-based science. I must admit, when I saw that the author was the One Show's science expert and Marty Jopson's author photo has that 'Hey, I'm a mad scientist, kids!' look, my heart fell - I was sure the book would be the written equivalent of a 'Wow, look, aren't I clever, I can make this go bang!' science show - but, in fact, it's packed full of (appropriately) meaty scientific content.

I was really pleased that Jopson didn't stick purely to the chemistry of cooking, but launched with the working of some familiar kitchen gadgets - there was genuinely fascinating reading to be had about apparently humdrum equipment in the form of the physics and materials science of a knife and chopping board. And Jopson took us into industrial kitchens too, to reveal, for example, the remarkable process required to make puffed wheat.

Inevitably, the chemistry of cooking - how, for example, proteins denature and em…