FEED issue 31 Web

50 GENIUS INTERVIEW Adam Alter

In his latest book, Adam Alter, associate professor of marketing at NYU’s Stern School of Business with an appointment in the psychology department, examines how our screens have gone from being tools for education and entertainment to vectors for addiction. He talks to FEED about how users and technologists need to rethink how we do screens to avert a looming physical and mental health crisis INTOLERANT OF MENTAL DOWNTIME WE’VE BECOME

FEED: Can you tell us a bit about your background and area of study? ADAM ALTER: As an undergrad in Sydney, Australia, I studied actuarial science, psychology and law, spending a couple of years at a corporate law firm before deciding to pursue a PhD in social and cognitive psychology at Princeton University. Princeton was the hub of a branch of psychology broadly called ‘judgement and decision-making,’ and I became very interested in why people decide to do what they do – how they spend their time, money and effort – and whether those decisions bring them happiness. After grad school I moved to NYU’s Stern School of Business, where I’ve been a professor of marketing – and an affiliated psychology professor in the psychology department – for just over a decade. I’m less interested in traditional marketing – how you sell products – than in a newer branch known as transformative consumer research. How do you encourage consumers to spend their resources to maximise their wellbeing? How can we encourage people to eat healthier foods, exercise more, save more for retirement and spend time doing things that will make them happier, healthier and wiser? FEED: Can you tell us about your book Drunk Tank Pink and the insights and research that led to it? ADAM ALTER: Drunk Tank Pink was my first book. It was the distillation of a decade of research spanning grad school and my early years as a marketing professor. I wanted to understand why people think, feel and behave the way they do, and whether there might be subtle or hidden forces nudging or even pushing them in directions they might not expect. Each chapter of the book is devoted to a particular cue, and how that cue might shape human behaviour. The title refers to a colour that psychologists used to paint drunk tanks – jail cells – in the 1980s to calm rowdy prisoners. They found that this bright bubblegum pink colour seemed to calm those prisoners – although the effect is now widely disputed. I was curious about other cues, too – for example, do our names shape our outcomes in life? Do people with unique names, or simpler names or names that sound a particular way, fare differently in life? There’s plenty of evidence for this. With a simpler name you’re more likely to be voted into political office, and to rise to the level of partner in

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