March 28, 2013


Drunk Tank Pink and Other Unexpected Forces That Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave. By Adam Alter. Penguin. $25.95.

The Happiest Baby Guide to Great Sleep: Simple Solutions for Kids from Birth to 5 Years. By Harvey Karp, M.D. William Morrow. $15.99.

     “At its heart,” writes Adam Alter in Drunk Tank Pink, “this book is designed to show that your mind is the collective end point of a billion tiny butterfly effects,” referring to meteorologist Edward Lorenz’ famous talk suggesting that the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil might set off a tornado in Texas. Alter’s assertion of a wholly deterministic model for human thinking and response is something of a Holy Grail for an assistant professor in the marketing department of the Stern School of Business in New York City – which is what Alter is. After all, if one’s mind, one’s thinking and one’s reaction pattern are created by minuscule circumstances distant in time or place from where one happens to be, then there must be a way for marketers to harness the butterfly effect and use it to shove more consumer products of dubious value down people’s unwitting throats – and have the people, thinking they bought the products for their own good reasons, thank the marketers for “alerting” them to the great benefits of the oobleck of the month. Not that Alter puts things so crassly – not by a long shot. In fact, Drunk Tank Pink is an utterly fascinating study in science and pseudo-science, a remarkable journey through experiments that certainly demonstrate that influencers on humans are disparate and widespread and frequently unconscious – even if it does not show purveyors of crass commercialism how to harness human thought and emotion consistently (yet).

     The book’s title refers to a specific shade of pink that was discovered in the 1970s to reduce aggression, and that soon began to be used in places where unruly prisoners were kept, in an attempt to calm them. Then it caught on for other purposes: on seats in bus waiting areas to reduce vandalism, in visiting teams’ locker rooms to try to give an edge to home teams, and so on. And does it work? Well….maybe. This book is full of “well, maybe” thoughts presented with a touch too much certainty – or perhaps a touch too much intensive marketing. Much of what Alter discusses is so interesting that it is worth reading even if his conclusions are questionable. There is, for example, an amazing study of chess grandmasters – about as controlled, rational and cerebral a bunch of humans as you are likely to find. Researchers discovered that because heterosexual male chess players, like other heterosexual males, produce more testosterone in the presence of attractive women, they tend unconsciously to adopt riskier gambits when playing such women than when playing other men. In a related experiment designed to find out whether men’s response to attractive females is caused by sexual desire or merely by distraction, researchers – yes, different ones – discovered that the tipping pattern of men who received lap dances from topless women was fascinatingly different based on elements of the women’s behavior that the men could not know: if the women were not using oral contraceptives, they consistently earned larger tips during their monthly fertile phase than at any other time of the month, while if they were taking birth-control pills, they earned about the same amount throughout the month. The pill really did regularize their cycles – financial as well as menstrual. And what is the point of all this, assuming findings like these cannot (yet) be harnessed for marketing purposes? There may be no real “point” in terms of practical applicability of all the research that Alter cites, and in fact the real-world value of it is questionable: would an angry person in a bar be less likely to slug someone wearing a “drunk tank pink” shirt because of the shirt’s color, or more likely to attack because of some imagined association with the color, such as homosexuality? Outside the laboratory, there is no real way to know. But when a “laboratory” can be a “gentlemen’s club” in Albuquerque (where the lap-dancing study was conducted), and when experiments can show that responses to an identical cartoon panel are very different between Japanese and Americans because of cultural differences involving individualism and collectivism, then there are certainly lessons of some sort to be learned from Drunk Tank Pink. The thing is that, by Alter’s own argument, each reader’s response is likely to be wholly different from that of the next reader, since the confluence of events bringing each reader to and through the book is likely to be deterministically different. There is something philosophical to be garnered here, even if philosophy is scarcely Alter’s interest. Whatever that something may be, however it may vary from reader to reader, it is worth exploring and thinking about, because the experiments that Alter recounts are absolutely fascinating even if their implications are, like the effects of a butterfly’s wings, uncertain and ultimately unknowable.

     Behavioral issues are far more down-to-earth and have far more immediacy for the parents of young children, and that is Harvey Karp’s milieu. The paperback edition of The Happiest Baby Guide to Great Sleep, available now – a year after the original hardcover publication – will be a great find for parents whose own sleep is constantly interrupted by infant and toddler sleep difficulties. There are time-tested ways of handling middle-of-the-night infant-sleep issues, from rocking chairs to walking around the house cuddling the baby to taking a nighttime drive. Those approaches sometimes work, sometimes do not, but have the disadvantage that even if they do succeed where the child is concerned, they result in parents being sleep-deprived and starting the next morning exhausted, bleary-eyed and mentally dull. This is not a recipe for success in either work or parenting – and repeating the behavior night after night, resulting in exhaustion day after day, only makes matters worse.

     Karp, a pediatrician and child-development specialist, is a sort of one-man baby-advice factory, and is not above reminding readers of it: “If you’ve seen my DVDs and books, you’ll recognize some old favorite techniques…”  “You can find a detailed demonstration and discussion of the calming reflex and 5 S’s in The Happiest Baby DVD or digital download.” And he has a folksy style that may take some getting used to: “Most new moms notice that their memory turns to mush right after giving birth (or even a few months before).” “Once you have your S’s in place, here are additional cues that will make your little one’s nighty-night routine even more comforting.”  About those S’s: they stand for specific things (swaddling, side/stomach, shushing, swinging and sucking), but Karp is enamored of the 19th letter of the alphabet throughout this book: “Setting the Stage,” “Soothing Your Sweetie,” “A Short, Sweet, Sacred Time,” “Another S: Smell,” “Sleep Schedules,” “Sleep Success,” and so forth. There is nothing wrong with this same sort of stylistic stuff if you happen to like it, but it does tend to become cloying and overly cute after a while.

     The basic ideas here, though, are so good that potential irritation with the presentation fades quickly into the background. Karp divides his book into four sections: birth to three months, three to 12 months, one to five years, and a final section on “special situations” (sigh). He presents graphs and charts, explanations of how sleep changes over a person’s life, and very useful Q&A sections for each age range. He discusses subjects such as “state control,” the level of a baby’s awareness at any particular point in time, and how you can use knowledge of your baby’s alertness to improve his or her sleep; and he offers a variety of experiments and demonstrations to show just how processes such as state control work. He spends pages and pages exploding various myths about babies and sleep. For example, one myth is that “sleeping babies need us to tiptoe around,” but the reality is that “you may like sleeping in peace and quiet, but for your baby, it’s really weird!” There are discussions of swaddling, having your baby sleep in your bed, sleep positions, use of white noise (the right kind of white noise; Karp explains what works and what does not), and how developmental stages change sleep patterns and should change parental response to them. A number of Karp’s statements will be counterintuitive – for instance, “the best time to start your bedtime routine is in the morning!” But Karp always explains why these ideas, even if startling, are not only correct but also important for a better sleep experience for children – which translates into a better one for long-suffering parents. There is a lot of information here, and the layout of the book is somewhat overdone, with bullet points, subsections, subheads, boxes of information, question sections, illustrations and other design elements tumbling over each other to the point of confusion (especially for parents who are sleep-deprived). However, the “Crib Notes” (one cutesy phrase among many) provide a good place to begin: they appear at chapter ends and summarize what has been discussed, and can be a good starting point that can send you back into the chapter for more-in-depth understanding of Karp’s ideas. The Happiest Baby Guide to Great Sleep is perhaps a little too full of itself, but it is also full of intelligent and very useful suggestions whose value will be quickly established for exhausted, overstressed parents for whom a good night’s sleep – the adult kind – is wholly dependent on their baby’s restful slumber.

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