Why "Drunk Tank Pink" is a poor paint color choice for your baby's bedroom

Our guest for this episode of You Are Not So Smart is Adam Alter, a psychologist who studies marketing and communication, and his New York Times bestselling book is titled Drunk Tank Pink after the color used to paint the walls of police holding cells after research suggested it lessened the urge to fight.

By David McRaney at 2:22 pm Thu, Aug 14, 2014

I did something this week that I’m sure many people secretly do every day. I stopped, talked to myself for a moment, and checked to see how much slack was in the leash I keep on my tongue.

I was reminded that I need to do that from time to time, or at least I believe that I do, by a bit of news that was passed around for a few days this week. The reports said that one of the government’s most prestigious energy laboratories was working to eradicate the Southern accent – not from the planet, mind you, just from employees who had requested the service.

The Oak Ridge National Laboratory is a place where Nobel laureates hang out. It’s a place where thousands of scientists work daily trying to solve some of the world’s most serious problems. It has, according to the website, a $1.46 billion annual budget. This week, NPR reported that the Tennessee laboratory swiftly canceled its plans to hold a six-week course aimed at reducing the Southern drawl among employees. They explained to reporters that the course was created at the request of employees, not the lab, and that it was also shot down by other employees who found the idea offensive.

Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces that Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave by Adam Alter is available from Amazon.

I learned through this reporting that there are professional twang assassins who go around to businesses and large organizations like this one helping people neutralize and flatten their native lilts and inflections. Not just the Southern accent either, if your organization is chugging along thanks to regional dialects weighted down with negative associations, professionals can help rid you of that baggage.

I have to admit, it bothers me that brilliant scientists would be self-conscious about droppin’ the letter g, and leaving behind a trail of y’alls during lectures about spallation neutron sources and high flux isotope reactors. But, I get it. I feel for them. If I hadn’t spent so much time over the years working to flatten out my own Southern accent, and if I knew what a high flux isotope reactor was, I might consider taking that course.

I don’t hate the Southern accent. I’m not ashamed of it. I share my motivations with Stephen Colbert who explained why he flattened out his tongue back in 2006 in an interview with 60 Minutes. When Morley Safer asked him why he didn’t sound like other people from South Carolina, Colbert said, “At a very young age, I decided I was not going have a southern accent. When I was a kid watching TV, if you wanted to use a shorthand that someone was stupid, you gave the character a Southern accent. Now that’s not true. Southern people aren’t stupid, but I didn’t want to seem stupid. I wanted to seem smart.”

I want to seem smart too, or, at least, not dumb. That’s why I hide my accent and occasionally reel it back in when I notice it’s getting too frisky. The Southern accent tells people you are from the South, and being from the South labels you with an assortment of negative associations, and the associative architecture of memory causes people to involuntarily, unconsciously, invisibly change they way they think, feel, and behave once such a label worms its way into the brain.

Consider these two phenomena – the Baker/baker paradox and the halo effect. The Baker/baker paradox describes how subjects in studies tend find it very difficult to remember last names like Farmer or Baker but find it very easy to remember that each person was a baker or a farmer. The last names are part of weak networks with few nodes while the professions are part of vast networks with constellations of nodes connected to ideas all over the mind. How many Farmers can you name? How many items can you name that you might find on a farm? The stronger the network, the easier it is to think about something, to remember it, and to feel whatever your culture and upbringing has primed you to feel about it. That’s why the halo effect is so powerful. In what is now known as The Hannah Study, subjects watched as a young girl answered a series of difficult questions correctly and a series of easy questions incorrectly. When asked to grade her performance as above or below average, the students were faced with ambiguity. They had to guess. Expecting this, scientists beforehand had shown half the students a video of Hannah playing in a posh, pristine playground, and the other half saw her playing in a fenced-in, overgrown schoolyard. The people who saw her in the nice neighborhood said she performed above average. The people who saw her playing in the bad neighborhood said she performed below average. The halos eliminated the ambiguity.

We are each born labeled. In moments of ambiguity, those labels can become halos that change the way people make decisions about us. As a cognitive process, it is invisible, involuntary, and unconscious – and that’s why psychology is working so hard to understand it.

Our guest for this episode is Adam Alter, a psychologist who studies marketing and communication, and his New York Times bestselling book is titled Drunk Tank Pink after the color used to paint the walls of police holding cells after research suggested it lessened the urge to fight. Alter’s book details the power of names, regions, accents, clothes, colors, skin tones, race and everything in between. Those things, he explains on the show, become symbols and labels, charged with meaning. Thanks to the networks they ping in our brains, labels and symbols, even colors, change the ways in which we think, feel and behave without us realizing it, he explains.

After the interview, I discuss how the dating website OKCupid convinced people to begin conversations with incompatible mates.

In every episode, before I read a bit of self delusion news, I taste a cookie baked from a recipe sent in by a listener/reader. That listener/reader wins a signed copy of my new book, “You Are Now Less Dumb,” and I post the recipe on the YANSS Pinterest page. This episode’s winner is Karlie Bell who submitted a recipe for coconut chocolate chip cookies. Send your own recipes to david {at} youarenotsosmart.com.

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Published 2:22 pm Thu, Aug 14, 2014

About the Author

David McRaney is a journalist and self-described psychology nerd. He's the author of the books You Are Not So Smart and You Are Now Less Dumb. He has written for several publications, including The Atlantic and Psychology Today. He lives in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

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