In the International Herald Tribune, Pam Belluck has a nice summary of recent research indicating that colors matter in ways we probably don’t imagine. Her article, titled “Accurate red, creative blue: Color counts, study says,” is excerpted below.
Trying to improve your performance at work or kick-start that novel you want to write? Maybe it’s time to consider the color of your walls, or your screen saver.
If a new study is any guide, the color red can make people’s work more accurate, but blue can make them more creative.
In the study, published Thursday in the online edition of Science magazine, researchers at the University of British Columbia conducted tests with 600 participants to see how cognitive performance varies when people see red or blue. Participants performed tasks in which words or images were displayed against red, blue or neutral backgrounds on computer screens.
Red groups did better on tests of recall and attention to detail, like remembering words or checking spelling and punctuation. Blue groups did better on tests requiring invention and imagination: coming up with creative uses for a brick or creating toys from collections of shapes.
“If you’re talking about wanting enhanced memory for something like proofreading skills, then a red color should be used,” concluded Juliet Zhu, an assistant professor of marketing at the university’s business school, who conducted the studies with Ravi Mehta, a doctoral student. For “a brainstorming session for a new product or coming up with a new solution to fight child obesity or teenage smoking, then you should get people into a blue room.”
Whether color can color performance or emotions has long fascinated scientists – not to mention advertisers, sports teams and restaurateurs.
Consider the Olympic uniform study, in which anthropologists at Durham University in England found that athletes in the 2004 Olympics who wore red instead of blue in boxing, tae kwon do, Greco-Roman wrestling, and freestyle wrestling won 60 percent of the time. The researchers suggested that red, for athletes, as for animals, subconsciously symbolizes dominance.
Perhaps a similarly primal effect was afoot in a 2008 study led by Andrew Elliot at the University of Rochester, in which men considered photographs of women on red backgrounds or wearing red shirts more attractive, although not necessarily more likeable or intelligent.
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In cognitive realms, experts say colors may affect performance because of the mood they transmit.
“When things go wrong or when you feel that the situation you are in is problematic, you are more likely to pay attention to detail, which helps you with processing tasks but interferes with creative types of things,” said Norbert Schwarz, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan. By contrast, “people in a happy mood are more creative and less analytic.”
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[I]n results that appear to align with the Science study’s theory that red makes people more cautious and detail-oriented, Elliot found that people shown red on a test cover before an IQ test did worse than those shown green or a neutral color, and also chose easier questions to answer. IQ tests require more problem-solving, similar to the creative questions that Zhu asked.
Zhu’s subjects, asked what red or blue made them think of, mostly said red represented caution, danger and mistakes, while blue symbolized peace and openness. Also, subjects unscrambled anagrams of “avoidance-related” words, like “danger,” faster with red backgrounds and unscrambled anagrams of positive “approach-related” words, like “adventure,” faster with blue backgrounds.
Besides testing cognitive performance, she also tested responses to advertising, finding that ads stressing “avoidance” qualities, like cavity prevention, or product details, appealed more on red backgrounds, while ads stressing optimistic qualities, like “tooth whitening,” or using creative designs, appealed more on blue.
Interestingly, when different participants were asked if they thought they would do better with red or blue, more people said blue for both detail-oriented and creative tasks. Maybe, Zhu said, that is because more people prefer blue to red.
The study, she cautioned, did not involve different cultures, like China, where red symbolize prosperity and luck. And it said nothing about mixing red and blue to make purple.
Also, Schwarz said, color effects can be outweighed by clear instructions – to be accurate or creative in a task – so color means more when a project can be approached either way.
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