What’s in a Label?

A new book looks at how the way we think and behave can be shaped by forces we aren’t aware of.

On this week’s show we’re talking with Adam Alter, assistant professor of marketing and psychology at NYU’s Stern School of Business and author of the new book, Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces That Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave.

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In his book, Alter presents a wide breadth of research showing how forces we aren’t aware of can shape our thoughts and behaviors. In the chapter called “Labels,” Alter describes a set of experiments done by researchers at Stanford University who were trying to determine whether labeling someone as “black” or “white” affected perception of the person.

Image from “Drunk Tank Pink,” by Adam Alter, courtesy The Penguin Press

The image above (taken from the book) illustrates one of those experiments. As Alter writes:

“…a second experiment showed that people believe the same face is darker when its owner is described as black rather than white. Here are three faces from that experiment—one depicting a black man, one depicting a white man, and the middle face depicting a man who could plausibly be called either white or black. Which face looks the darkest? And which looks the lightest?… If you cover up the facial features with your hand and focus only on the foreheads, you’ll be able to see that the faces share an identical skin tone.”

What do you think? If you compare the foreheads, does the tone of each look the same to you?

Meet the Writer

About Annette Heist

Annette Heist is a former senior producer for Science Friday.