The Situationist

An Interview with NYU’s Adam Alter

Posted by Adam Benforado on March 25, 2013

As detailed in a post last week, NYU marketing and psychology professor Adam Alter’s terrific new book, Drunk Tank Pink, is now out in bookstores around the country.  It is a thoroughly interesting and engaging read and well worth picking up (indeed, you can order a copy here on Amazon).

As part of what I hope will turn into a trend here at The Situationist, I interviewed Adam about his book.  My questions and his responses are found below:

1.  What led you to write a book for a trade press?

Adam:  The Boston Globe featured a piece on cognitive fluency, one of my main areas of academic interest, and several agents called me after reading the piece.  After reading the piece, which played up the striking relationship between cognitive processing and all sorts of important real-world outcomes, they were convinced that the research should be translated for the public.  I began writing a proposal, but felt that fluency alone wasn’t enough to fill an entire book, so broadened the book’s scope.  Fluency is still in there, but I also cover other drivers of behavior and thinking (e.g., names and linguistic labels, symbols, culture, the presence of other people, weather, etc.).  My agent sent the proposal to a number of publication houses, and I was delighted when Penguin Press decided to publish the book.      

2.  Had you ever written for a non-academic audience before?  What are the challenges of writing a popular book in psychology?

Adam:  I had and have since written shorter pieces for a number of non-academic sites—Psychology Today, The Atlantic, Huffington Post, and Slate, for example.  I really enjoy writing for non-academic audiences, because that sort of writing forces you to think about what the research really means, to jettison the technical baggage that allows you to avoid thinking about the broader implications of the work.  Theory development is obviously critical, but it’s easy to get bogged down in minutiae, and over time you lose sight of the work’s broader importance.  When you write for a popular outlet, you’re constantly pushed to expose the broader practical implications of the work.  It’s never enough to describe, say, the fact that people prefer simpler names to complex names—you also have to explain why that’s important in a context that people find meaningful and personally relevant.

3.  What type of people do you hope will read the book?

Adam:  I wrote the book for an audience of intelligent laypeople who haven’t studied much (or any) psychology.  I’d be very happy to have psychologists and other academics read the book as well, but my aim was to describe the work with all its complexity while steering clear of arcane technical terms. 

4.  What is your favorite experiment in the book?

Adam:  One of my favorites is a study that overturned the widely held belief that the Müller-Lyer illusion is universal.  According to the illusion, people perceive the vertical line on the right, below, as longer than the vertical line on the left.  In fact the lines are identical in length, but it’s difficult for almost everyone in the world to shake the sense that they differ in length depending on the orientation of the shorter lines that extend from their ends.

Lines pic

The researchers presented the two lines to people from different cultural groups across the world, and found that it almost always held—except among African tribesmen and bushmen who had never lived in or encountered the hard geometric angles we associate with modern architecture.  If you look at the line on the left, it looks like the near edge of two walls (illustrated in Wall A, below).  In contrast, the line on the right looks like the far edge of two walls (Wall B, below).  When you look at the image below, you know that the edges at Wall A and Wall B are actually identical in height, and you automatically adjust by assuming that Wall A is relatively shorter than it appears, while Wall B is relatively taller in comparison.  Most people in the world today have learned to adjust for perspective, but the tribespeople in the study were immune to the illusion because they hadn’t been exposed to the sorts of visual scenes that train people to make these hard-to-detect mental adjustments.  The study illustrates a number of important ideas: that we’re quick to assume an effect is universal before we’ve tested it more broadly; that cultural experience shapes even the most basic perceptual processes (and not just which foods we like to eat or how we treat our elders); and that focusing our intellectual attention on a single cultural group occludes some very interesting results that aren’t clear until we venture into relatively remote cultural territory.

Room pic

5.  If you had the ability to take one insight from your book and use it to alter American policy at the local, state, or national level what would it be?

Adam:  There’s a great study showing that people donate more to hurricane relief charities when the hurricane name shares the first letter in their own first name.  So Matts, Marys, and Marks are more likely to donate to Hurricane Mitt relief than to Hurricane Katrina relief, but Kims, Kevins, and Kens are more likely to do the reverse.  The National Weather Service has named its hurricanes using a series of alphabetical lists for six or seven decades, but now that we know that people donate based on their initials, it might make sense to name hurricanes more systematically.  For example, more Americans have the first name initials J and M than the initials O and V, so perhaps we should remove Olga and Van from the 2013 list, replacing them with, say, James and Maria.  I conducted a rough simulation and calculated that, over the course of the last decade, hurricane relief agencies could have attracted $500 billion more in aid relief just by renaming hurricanes using this very simple approach.  Small tweaks like this—tweaks that are both inexpensive and non-invasive—sometimes bring about strikingly large real-world effects. 

Many thanks to Adam for doing the interview.  As I said, it’s a great book and I encourage readers to pick up a copy.

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