Drunk Tank Pink


CLO magazine

In the late 1970s, scientists discovered that certain shades of pink calmed people who were agitated or angry. Walking into a pink room sapped the energy of difficult prisoners. Police painted holding cells pink. Some football coaches repainted visiting team dressing rooms pink. CLOs, whatever you do, don’t paint your classrooms pink!

drunk2A new book by psychologist Adam Alter, appropriately named Drunk Tank Pink, tells hundreds of stories about how this and of other factors shape our thoughts without our permission or knowledge. Alter provides examples of “hidden persuaders” lurking in names, labels, symbols, culture, colors, locations, weather, warmth, and the presence of others. For example,

  • People come up with twice as many innovative uses for a paperclip after a picture of a lightbulb is shown to them, even thought it flashes by too quickly for them to recognize it.
  • People contribute more to victims of a hurricane if their name starts with the same letter as the name of the storm.
  • Given a choice, right-handed people prefer words made of letters from the righthand size of the keyboard.
  • Tell teachers certain students are “academic bloomers,” and those students’ IQs rise 10-15 points over the course of a year.
  • Show an Apple logo to people subliminally and they think more creatively than people who are shown an IBM logo.
  • Mount a photograph of peering eyes in the coffee room, and fewer people cheat the honesty box.
  • When Japanese mounted blue lights in train stations, crime rates dropped and suicides ceased.
  • Olympic wrestlers are more likely to win a medal if they are wearing red.
  • People think it’s easier to drive south because it’s down, not up, on the map.
  • People reflect more intently on messages in difficult-to-read fonts.
  • People are more aggressive in hot weather and amorous in cold.

Like it or not, environmental factors like these have huge impact on how well or poorly people learn.

As work becomes increasingly fast-paced and complex, more learning takes place on the job. Wise CLOs will shift their attention to improving what I call the Workscape, the on-job locus of experiential and informal learning. They will invest in factors that once seemed superfluous to learning. (An ADDIE analysis won’t lead you to change the color or temperature of the room.)

People are complex adaptive systems. We’re subject to the same guiding principles as other complex systems, such as the weather. Tiny inputs can have outsized consequences. A butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can start a tornado in Texas. A drab room or creepy photograph on the wall can hinder learning.

Alter has a marvelous acronym for the culture of the West: WEIRD = Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratized. We managers in WEIRD cultures don’t tend to think of situations like Alter’s. We miss the connections.

We inherited our way of looking at the world from the ancient Greeks. Aristotle analyzed objects in isolation from their context. Think of logic. The Greeks focused more on the individual than the group, and we do likewise today.

Asian managers see things differently. They see objects in relation to what’s around them. They focus more on the relationship of the individual and his environment. One suspects Asian managers are more attuned to improving their organizations’ workscapes than their WEIRD counterparts.

In the 1950s, social psychologist Solomon Asch conducted an experiment on social conformity. A group of seven people was handed a slip of paper with several lines of differing lengths on it and Asch asked each in turn to describe what they saw. The first person said she saw four lines of equal length. So did  each of the next five people. (They were all shills who had been instructed to lie about what they saw.) 30% of the time, the last person reported he saw equal-length lines, too! Such is the power of social pressure.

If social pressure is strong enough to make you doubt your senses, imagine the impact it must have on attitudes toward learning. Shouldn’t we be paying attention to how workers feel about learning and what they say about it?

By the way, in a recent twist, Asch’s experiment was recreated with that last member of the group hooked up to an fMRI machine. Half of the people who reported seeing lines of equal length actually saw exactly that. Group pressure trumps the senses.

Don’t you want to join the CLOs who are paying less attention to learning programs and more to learning platforms?



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