Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces That Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave
Adam Alter
Penguin Press, 2013 ($20)

At the 2004 Summer Olympics, researchers asked six athletes in different sports to wear red uniforms instead of their usual more subdued colors. All of them won gold. Although the color red, associated with sex, dominance and aggression, did not convey magical powers, it may have provided subconscious cues to the athletes and their opponents that swayed the outcome of the competition.

In his new book, social psychologist Alter reveals how seemingly innocuous things, such as colors, symbols, even names, influence how we think and behave. To prove his point, Alter starts with work that began in the 1970s, which showed how pink walls in confined spaces, jails and locker rooms changed men's behavior—calming those prone to violence, even decreasing their strength.

Subtle changes to the environment can also tweak people's behavior. In one study, researchers showed 300 students the Apple or IBM logos at 77 frames per second, too fast for humans to see or process consciously. Participants exposed to the Apple but not the IBM logo performed much better on a subsequent creativity test in which they were asked to find alternative uses for a paper clip. The study revealed that subliminal exposure to a powerful cultural symbol can be enough to prompt people to think outside the box.

Changes to our social scene can also have similar effects. For instance, OPower, an energy company, pits neighbor against neighbor in a friendly game to reduce electricity use. It awards digital smiley faces to clients who conserve more than their neighbors. The system works: since its launch, the firm has accumulated savings of one billion kilowatt-hours from the U.S. electrical grid.

Competing with others does not always bring out our best, however. Pressure from opponents often makes people perform poorly, like when taking a test alongside your peers.

By offering a peek into human perception, Drunk Tank Pink may help us reevaluate our surroundings, making us aware of small cues that may direct our thoughts.