Difficult Thoughts

Here’s yet another interesting item from Edge.org, this time an interview with a young psychologist named Adam Alter, whom I hadn’t heard of before now. The article’s accompanying biographical note says this about him:

ADAM ALTER is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at Stern School of Business, NYU. He is the author of Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces that Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave.

Popping over to Amazon to have a look at Professor Alter’s book, I found this description:

An illuminating look at the way the thoughts we have and the decisions we make are influenced by forces that aren’t always in our control

Why are people named Kim, Kelly, and Ken more likely to donate to Hurricane Katrina victims than to Hurricane Rita victims? Are you really more likely to solve puzzles if you watch a light bulb illuminate? How did installing blue lights along a Japanese railway line halt rising crime and suicide rates? Can decorating your walls with the right artwork make you more honest? The human brain is fantastically complex, having engineered space travel and liberated nuclear energy, so it’s no wonder that we resist the idea that we’re deeply influenced by our surroundings. As profound as they are, these effects are almost impossible to detect both as they’re occurring and in hindsight. Drunk Tank Pink is the first detailed exploration of how our environment shapes what we think, how we feel, and the ways we behave.

The world is populated with words and images that prompt unexpected, unconscious decisions. We are so deeply attracted to our own initials that we give more willingly to the victims of hurricanes that match our initials: Kims and Kens donate more generously to Hurricane Katrina victims, whereas Rons and Rachels give more openly to Hurricane Rita victims. Meanwhile, an illuminated light bulb inspires creative thinking because it symbolizes insight.

Social interactions have similar effects, as professional cyclists pedal faster when people are watching. Teachers who took tea from the break room at Newcastle University contributed 300 percent more to a cash box when a picture of two eyes hung on the wall. We’re evolutionarily sensitive to human surveillance, so we behave more virtuously even if we’re only watched by a photograph. The physical environment, from locations to colors, also guides our hand in unseen ways. Dimly lit interiors metaphorically imply no one’s watching and encourage dishonesty and theft, while blue lights discourage violent activity because they’re associated with the police. Olympic taekwondo and judo athletes are more likely to win when they wear red rather than blue, because red makes them behave aggressively and referees see them as more dominant. Drunk Tank Pink is full of revelatory facts, riveting anecdotes, and cutting-edge experiments that collectively explain how the most unexpected factors lead us to think, feel, and behave the way we do.

It sounds as if Professor Alter is in rather the same line of work as people like Daniel Kahneman and Dan Ariely. It’s depressing to see how irrational we are so much of the time, but there it is. The world that “designed” our cognitive apparatus us is not the world we’ve been living in for the past couple of centuries, and a lot of old buttons and levers are still exposed, waiting to be pushed and yanked by those who know. It’s good for us to know about these things, even if it’s a little dispiriting. (And of course, it’s the sort of knowledge that people will pay a lot of money for.)

In the Edge interview, Alter tells us that some thoughts are simply easier to have than others, and that this can affect, in unexpected ways, what we do with them. He calls this measure of difficulty disfluency.

The basic idea here is that when you have a thought, any thought, it falls along a continuum from fluent to disfluent. A fluent thought is one that feels subjectively easy to have. When you speak English and you come across a common English name, like John, or Tom, or Ted, it’s very, very easy to process that name. There’s no difficulty in reading the name and in making sense of the name.

At the other end of the spectrum you might come across a foreign name or a novel name that you’ve never seen before or perhaps a name that you’ve seen before, but spelled very differently. In that case it’s going to be much more difficult to process the name. Then it will be disfluent or subjectively difficult to process. It will feel more difficult to process. There’s not only the content, what the name happens to be, and what it’s like to store that information, but also what it’s like to have the thoughts of processing the name, of making sense of the name.

This is a topic that I’ve been very interested in, and I’ve been interested in the concept of fluency and how that might affect a whole lot of different judgments that we make, and the way we process the world. The most basic effects in fluency research are pretty straightforward, and the idea is that when something is fluent, you feel differently about it from how you would feel if it were more difficult to process. I’ll give you a few examples from my own research.

And so he does. We learn, for example, that people who have familiar and easily pronounceable names tend to rise farther and faster than those who don’t, and that stock-market offerings that have pronounceable acronyms as ticker symbols do better in the weeks after their IPOs than those with unsayable clusters of consonants.

Professor Alter tells us also that presenting information in an intentionally disfluent way can make us examine it more carefully. He gives this example:

There’s a famous task called the Cognitive Reflection Test, and this test has three different questions, and each of the questions lures you into giving the wrong response, because the intuitive response is actually incorrect. An example of this is, “When you add the cost of a bat and a ball together the sum of those two is worth $1.10, and the bat costs a dollar more than the ball, how much does the ball cost?” It’s a very simple question. Anyone with basic arithmetic skills can answer it.

What happens is, for some reason the first and intuitive response is that, I guess the bat must be $1, the ball must be 10 cents. That adds to $1.10. That seems about right. But, of course, the difference between $1 and 10 cents is 90 cents, not $1. The correct answer is that the bat is worth $1.05, the ball is worth 5 cents. They add to $1.10, and the difference between them is $1. And people generally struggle with these questions. They’re lured in. They give their intuitive response, and they’re incorrect.

But if you present the questions in a font that’s a little bit more difficult to read, we found that you can increase their accuracy pretty dramatically. They make fewer of those intuitive responses. They take the time to reconsider their initial responses. They assume that the task is more difficult. They have a bit less confidence in their initial response, and so they tend to do a little bit better at the task. The same is true when you ask them to complete syllogism questions, logical syllogisms, any questions that ask you to think more deeply about a particular topic, where thinking more deeply will lead you to the right answer more often. We’ve shown that with disfluency people are more likely to do that. We have even found the same effect in a number of other domains as well.

(From a Gurdjieffian point of view, this makes perfect sense: the disfluent presentation interferes with our ability to process the information mechanically; it forces us to bypass what Gurdjieff and Ouspensky called the “formatory apparatus”, and to bring to bear our intellectual center.)

The interview rambles on a bit; clearly this is not a mature field, and whenever anyone comes up with a new idea like this the tendency is to try it on everything in the world to see if it fits. But the idea itself is a very interesting one, and Professor Alter gives us a lot of provocative speculation.

The interview and video are here.

Related content from Sphere


  1. Kevin Kim says

    “Professor Alter tells us also that presenting information in an intentionally disfluent way can make us examine it more carefully.”


    Posted March 5, 2013 at 12:27 am | Permalink
  2. JK says

    Maybe so Kevin still, visualizing a drunk tank painted pink ’bout caused me to puke.

    Posted March 5, 2013 at 12:22 pm | Permalink
  3. I’m disposed to trust anyone with the initials AA who’s talking about a drunk tank.

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

    Posted March 5, 2013 at 3:13 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    You have a remarkable mind, Jeffery. I’d completely missed that.

    Posted March 5, 2013 at 3:27 pm | Permalink
  5. Dennis says

    Interesting. You might find this complementary.


    Posted March 5, 2013 at 3:32 pm | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says

    Yes, Dennis, that’s much the same sort of thing. What machines we are.

    Posted March 5, 2013 at 3:57 pm | Permalink
  7. JL says

    Uri Simonsohn has convincingly refuted the idea that your name has a big effect on your behavior. The spurious effect is due to cohort, geographic, and ethnic confounds as well as reverse causality.

    Posted March 10, 2013 at 1:02 pm | Permalink
  8. Malcolm says

    Thanks, JL, we’ll have a look.

    Posted March 10, 2013 at 2:01 pm | Permalink
  9. That there is some influence is also not necessarily a big deal. The K’s gave somewhat more to Katrina victims. But did all K’s give, and no L’s or P’s? Or did they give 10x more?

    Of course not. People who give to Hurricane victims at a certain level of desperation will give to them; others not, based on more stable factors. Stocks with pronounceable acronyms will do better at first, but other factors will override. I suppose with butterfly effects it can all change the world forever, but I think this has been overplayed in the last few years.

    Posted March 10, 2013 at 5:02 pm | Permalink
  10. Malcolm says

    I hadn’t been following this one at all, so found this idea of “disfluence” interesting, and plausible. Certainly our behavior is influenced, and sometimes outright determined, by factors of which we are quite unconscious. Cumulatively, it clearly rises to the level of a big deal, though I agree that the extent to which Keith and Karen gave to Katrina victims and kept their wallets closed for Irene is likely not to be the one idea that explains the arc of history.

    Dan Ariely in particular has turned up some very interesting and highly repeatable results.

    Posted March 11, 2013 at 12:07 am | Permalink