science | April 23, 2013

Why We Do What We Do: Malcolm Gladwell Interviews Adam Alter

In Drunk Tank Pink, science speaker Adam Alter lists example after example of unexpected cues in our environment that shape and influence our behavior. He explains that everything from the color of your shirt to the first initial of your name can profoundly influence how you—and others you come into contact with—behave. If these effects are so profound, however, why is it that they are not obvious to us while they are happening? That's one of the questions bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell asked Alter in an interview conducted late last month.

The feedback our brains get about what is going on around us tends to be very convoluted and difficult to dissect, Alter explains. Because of this, it becomes difficult to pinpoint why we are being swayed one way or the other. As such, we become very good at fabricating explanations for why we do what we do—even if what we come up with isn't the root cause of our actions. Rarely do we rebel against the forces that impact our actions, Alter says. And, the fact that people don't know they are being swayed means that these environmental cues are very difficult to overcome.

"The link between knowing the effect exists and knowing what to do about it is critical," Alter adds. Now that we know these cues exist, we can start to manipulate them to induce more positive behaviors. In his keynotes, he presents his eye-opening findings and pairs them with practical actions. For example, changing the language used to describe a car accident (the car was "hit" versus the car was "smashed") can alter eye-witness accounts. If aware of this phenomenon, lawyers can then make note of how language impacts memory to make the most out of witness testimonials. Or, as another example, Alter says we can increase hurricane relief donations by changing the way we name the storms. Since people are prone to give 50 per cent more money to a storm relief effort when the storm shares the first initial of their name—we can manipulate how we name storms to ensure the maximum amount of donations. The more we learn about how our environment shapes our cognitive processing, says Alter, the more apt we will become at manufacturing cognitively healthy environments.