How much of ourselves do we really control?

“So much of control is not authoritative action but mindful waiting.”               ~Cameron Conaway, Caged: Memoirs of a Cage-Fighting Poet

In his book Drunk Tank Pink, Adam Alter describes a classic study which created quite a stir amongst sports coaches and prison warders, as well as psychologists and parents. The study by Schauss in 1979 suggested that simple exposure to one of two colours made a significant difference to people’s display of strength.  A large group of men were tested, one by one, on a simple strength test.  They were asked to raise their arms in front of their body while a moderate downward and opposite pressure was applied by the researcher to their arms. Nothing remarkable in this so far.  However, when the men were asked to stare at a large piece of cardboard which was coloured pink, their strength was dramatically weaker than when they were asked to stare at a piece of blue cardboard. Blue appeared to leave the subject’s strength intact, while pink depleted their strength.


source: PeterM_KOMO/view/10334383

This curious finding quickly found practical application across a number of situations, one of which was the use of pink holding cells in correctional facilities. Angry inmates were reported as being calmed almost immediately by being placed in pink cells. The phenomenon went on to have wider application, and was even used in the world of sport, with boxers wearing pink shorts to ‘weaken’ their opponents, and American football teams painting their opponents’ locker rooms pink in order to reduce the visiting teams’ combativeness just prior to the start of the game.

Psychologists are now aware of many such phenomena which similarly influence our behaviour and our subconscious thoughts. They refer to these forces as cues. 

Within Drunk Tank Pink, the author goes on to chronicle a number of fascinating examples:

  • Donations to the Red Cross following Hurricane Katrina in 2005 were highest amongst people named Kate, Katherine, Kevin, Keith and, yes, Katrina! In fact people tend to donate more often and more generously to causes that share their initials.
  • In 1964 in San Francisco an experiment was conducted in a primary school which shook the educationalist community to its core. At the start of the year, a new crop of students were admitted to the class. The teachers knew nothing about the children other than whether or not they had been described as ‘bloomers’. This was in fact a random label, the children having been arbitrarily assigned to the category of bloomer or non-bloomer by the study team.  After one year with the teachers the children were tested, and those labelled bloomers outscored their peers by 10-15 IQ points.
  • Students taking part in a social psychology experiment were asked to complete a questionnaire describing an anonymous person. This person was described using a number of fairly neutral words such as determined, cautious and intelligent.  They were then asked to rate the person’s personality.  Prior to the experiment, each student was met by the experimenter and taken up in a lift to the research room. While in the lift the students were asked to hold the experimenter’s cup of coffee (for half this was a warm cup of coffee and for half it was iced coffee).  Those students who had held the warm cup of coffee rated the anonymous person as significantly warmer and friendlier than those who had held the iced coffee.

So what does all this mean for the study of human behaviour?  One clear conclusion is that we are less in control of our thoughts, feelings and behaviours in relation to environmental cues than we might like to think we are.  The impacts of this range from the trivial (e.g. people ‘unknowingly’ put more money into the tea kitty honesty box when a picture of a set of eyes rather than a bunch of flowers is stuck on the wall nearby) through to hugely significant (e.g. subliminal priming of black faces resulted in people identifying crime-related objects quicker than if primed with white faces). This latter result has huge implications for our justice systems, and is of particular significance currently in the U.S. where a number of recent killings of black people by the police has resulted in civil unrest and judicial inquiries.

As coaches, leaders, teachers and parents we are well placed to shine a light on the power of these cues and, in doing so, provide people with a means to regain some control. By raising awareness of how these cues work, and the potential they have for affecting our interactions with people and for making decisions, we become better equipped to recognise them, allowing us to resist them when they are damaging, and embrace them when they may work in our favour.


About the author:   Louis Collins enables people to operate more successfully. You may be struggling to implement corporate strategy, you may want to get more productivity out of yourself or your teams but don’t know where to start, or you may not be having as effective conversations as you could be. I will work with you to enable you to formulate more effective ways of leading, to raise awareness of blockers to successful ways of working, and ultimately to help you and your managers to lead more successfully.

To learn more about how you or your teams can benefit from leadership and personal development, and create a working environment built on a constructive coaching culture, please do get in touch. Simply submit some basic details through the Contact Us page. I will be delighted to discuss further with you.




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