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Drunk Tank Pink

By Andrew Lovett-Barron
Published in Reading
April 25, 2021
2 min read

I’m a bit conflicted about this one. I find popular psychology books to be a bit frustrating, and Drunk Tank Pink is a good example of why. Broadly structured as a list of “Here’s how the environment affects your behaviour” anecdotes, backed up with empirical studies, it feels like a book that was born of the Internet’s reading habits. That said, it does have some value, if only as an opportunity to reflect on my own actions, or to think about where I might steer others towards better outcomes through my design work.

In the moment of a decision, we ascribe a lot of agency to ourselves as independent actors — more than is actually due. In reality, we’re more likely to set ourselves up for good or bad decisions: An online shopping app on our phone means we’re more likely to shop; a bottle of wine on the counter means we’re more likely to drink; wearing our running clothes to bed means we’re more likely to run, etc. Designing that context for better outcomes is a lot of what this book is about, in a kind of grab-bag fashion. The anecdote of “Drunk Tank Pink” — a particular colour of pink serving to reduce aggression — is where we get started, and through that, we jump between numerous examples: from diffusion of responsibility (passing a stabbing victim and not calling the police, because one believes someone else will do it), to a kind of fair-weather bias (stock fluctuations reflecting sunny or rainy weather), to locative addiction (GIs during the Vietnam War not bringing their heroin addiction home in as large numbers as previously feared, because they were removed from the site that triggered its use). Name affinity and cultural construction was another entertaining one, oriented around Freud and Engels.

This is my frustration with this book though. This same type of structure is used on Medium lists — it felt a bit like Alters wanted to write a book, and that book came together in a very mechanistic way. Most of the other books I’ve written about here have some broader thesis or purpose, either normative or descriptive. Here, it felt like I’d almost be better served by a serialized column — considering a different bias or phenomenon each week.

Anyway, all that said, I did find it useful. Reading these type of books does force a kind of serendipitous reflection on one’s own actions and behaviours, and having just finished it last night, I’ve already got some ideas. Maybe you will have some too.


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Andrew Lovett-Barron

Software Designer and Researcher

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