Prisoners in Pink: The Influence of Color on Behavior

Reprise of a post on one of our favorite subjects

Smart marketers know that color has a strong effect on emotional response. Specific colors have the ability to raise our blood pressure beyond our conscious control, increase our pulse rate, breathing and adrenaline—or to calm us down, pacify us.

Color psychologists cite an increasing number of studies linking colors to specific responses. One study found that weight lifters have more powerful performances in blue rooms, and another found that babies cry more frequently in yellow rooms. Packaging and signage in reds and orange can stimulate appetite and seem to markedly increase impulse purchases.

And pink is a lot more than the major component of the Barbie aisle at Toys R Us.

In the late 1970’s, Dr. Alexander Schauss, Ph.D., director of the American Institute for Biosocial Research in Puyallup WA, was the first to report the suppression of angry, antagonistic, and anxiety-ridden behavior among prisoners using a surprising color solution:

“Even if a person tries to be angry or aggressive in the presence of pink, he can’t.” Dr. Schauss reported. “The heart muscles can’t race fast enough. It’s a tranquilizing color that saps your energy. Even the color-blind are tranquilized by pink rooms.”

Many institutions have since taken paint brush in hand based on this study.

In Buffalo, Missouri in 2006, Sheriff Mike Rackley had the Dallas County Detention Center repainted a soft shade of pink (roughly equivalent to R255 G145 B175 and known as Baker-Miller Pink or more familiarly, “Drunk Tank Pink“) in an effort to better manage sometimes volatile detainees. Rackley said he decided to update the look as part of extensive repairs necessary after inmates set a fire and vandalized the interior in an escape attempt earlier in the year.

Inmates at Miami County Jail in Troy, Ohio were ordered to paint their cell blocks the same shade of pink in February of 2008 after Sheriff Charles Cox decided the color would have a calming effect.

County jails in Arizona, Tennessee and Texas have had similar makeovers….but does it work?

According to the sheriff at the Mason County Jail, who repainted with pink in 2005, his county’s re-offense rate decreased by 70 percent… a fairly staggering success.

But even prisons have to redecorate at some point—apparently the “pink effect” doesn’t last.

“In spite of these powerful effects, there is substantial evidence that these reactions are short term. Once the body returns to a state of equilibrium, a prisoner may regress to an even more agitated state.”1

In one instance, after several years of living in the pink, the Kansas City, Mo., Police Department abandoned the color for institutional gray. Jail officials there said the pink hue no longer had a discernible effect on prisoners—but really annoyed the jail staff.

—Barbara Combs

1. Morton Walker, The Power of Color 1991

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