science | May 12, 2013

Adam Alter: Why Don't We Know What Cues Are Driving Our Behavior?

In his new book, Drunk Tank Pink, science speaker Adam Alter has uncovered some fascinating findings about how cues in our environment impact our behavior. Since scientists are now able to pinpoint these cues, Malcolm Gladwell asks Alter why we can't identify them as they happen to us. Why aren't we able to tell that the color red, for example, is prone to inciting attraction? Why aren't we aware that a certain stock will do better than another on the market if its name is easily pronounceable? Why, as Gladwell asks Alter in a special discussion about Drunk Tank Pink, do the impacts of these cues always come as such a surprise?

As Alter explains, the feedback our minds receive about stimuli in our environment is extremely complex. Often it is "so murky and so noisy that it doesn't correspond to the nature of the effect," he says. Due to this, our minds have become extremely skilled at fabricating explanations for our behavior. Even, Alter notes, if those explanations are not entirely accurate. He cites a classic study where people were asked to choose their preferred brand of pantyhose. Each person developed a rationale for picking one over the other—even though all three pairs they were asked to choose from were exactly the same. As Alter tells Gladwell, many of the cues that impact our behavior are not blatantly obvious. That's why we develop other explanations for our actions and often allow the real driving force behind what we do to go unnoticed.

The implications of Alter's work is extremely far-reaching and customizable. In his book, he covers everything from the way names affect how we donate to disaster relief to the way judges prosecute criminals. When he takes the stage, he discusses a myriad of environmental cues that define the way we live. Most of which, he notes, do so without us even realizing it. By becoming aware of these cues and their effect on us, Alter argues we can craft happier, healthier, and more productive lives.

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social change | May 09, 2013